W Class trams – is this a great opportunity?

Melbourne’s W Class trams have serious limitations when it comes to doing what urban transit systems are supposed to do – move people around efficiently and quickly.

But they might potentially provide enormous benefits – particularly in relation to tourism and city “branding” – that could make their continued operation (and expansion!) more than worthwhile.

Twenty five W Class trams currently operate on the 78/79 route (Chapel St) but the Minister for Transport says they will be phased out by 2012. Another twelve operate the free City Circle route. There are possibly another 200 W Class trams in storage.

While they exude history, they are old and more like museum pieces than components of a modern public transport system. The youngest models were built in the 1950s, but the design dates from the 1920s. So there is no denying that the W Class has many shortcomings for use on a contemporary transit network.

They are slow. They are not air conditioned. They don’t have low-floor access. They are extremely noisy. They are bumpy. They do not offer adequate protection to the driver in the event of a collision with another vehicle unless they run at speeds lower than 40 Km/hr. On mixed routes they would hold up faster and more efficient trams like those operating on the 109 route, preventing them from being used to their potential.

San Francisco: Market St streetcar

Some of these shortcomings might not bother tourists or occasional users. But regular commuters expect much higher standards than the W Class was designed for. Since around 2005 Melbourne has experienced a dramatic increase in patronage on public transport and the Government is struggling to find the capacity to meet this growing demand.

Twenty first century commuters travelling on a daily basis demand air conditioning in Melbourne’s hot summers and a fast and comfortable ride. It is no longer acceptable to run a service without satisfactory access for disabled persons and the growing numbers of inner city and inner suburban residents mean noise is becoming an increasingly fraught issue.

As a city we need to be promoting day-to-day use of public transport in congested areas. That means the service has to be reliable, not one where key equipment is out of service while it’s being repaired.

But having said that, the W Class trams could offer Melbourne a golden opportunity to “brand” the city and generate additional tourism revenue. Melbourne has the most extensive tram network in the world and is the only major city in Australia that has maintained a large working system. We actually have authentic historic trams still working our streets. Yet we seem to treat this heritage with little care or respect.

Melbourne W Class tram in operation in Seattle

Whereas Sydney is known by the Opera House and the bridge, Melbourne’s most familiar icon is its trams. As more and more cities establish light rail systems, Melbourne’s continuous history as a tram city and its very large fleet of locally-built W Class trams could be a marketing advantage.

The National Trust has proposed that the W Class trams be updated to meet contemporary expectations and operated as a tourism service on a Grand Circle route running between the CBD and St Kilda (see map). The Trust contends that the cost of upgrading and maintaining the trams would be competitive with purchasing new trams. They say their limitations can be addressed while still keeping their heritage features.

There might be drawbacks with mixing the W Class trams with more modern vehicles on parts of the proposed route but the idea is appealing. In fact Melbourne could go further and follow the example of San Francisco.

San Francisco has parleyed its street car heritage into a major tourism generator in two ways – first, by preserving its historic cable cars and second by building up a large fleet of historic “antique” street cars to provide defined services in the inner city (it also has Muni, an extensive modern hybrid train-tram system). It has purchased these trams from many other cities in the US and elsewhere, including Melbourne.

San Francisco: Market St streetcar

Other cities like Memphis, Seattle and Savannah have acquired our W Class trams to give their cities a bit of character, personality and history. Why would we want to become yet another “look-alike city” when we have a real, continuous tram history? In other words, it’s not just a matter of keeping the W Class trams running, it’s a chance to go much further and exploit a potentially great opportunity.

There are definitely issues related to using the W Class trams on standard routes. There are also questions about the cost of updating and maintaining historic trams relative to modern vehicles. Similarly, the viability of a tourism service using either a W Class trams or other “antique” models has not been established.

I think it would be worthwhile for the Government to commit to a major, public study on the options and potential not only for preserving the continued operation of W Class trams but also for expanding significantly the number and range of historic trams in use and the geographical coverage. While the focus would primarily be on tourism and on building an identity for Melbourne, the potential for integrating historic trams into normal operations should also be investigated.

Thanks to Bruce Dickson who kindly supplied the superb San Francisco photos.

Some of San Francisco's historic streetcars - click through for more

3 Comments on “W Class trams – is this a great opportunity?”

  1. Lynne says:

    You say they are slow, yet tram services are slower today than when W’s ruled the rails. And W classes have seats unlike the low floor trams we are buying today.

  2. Totally agree with your suggestions and concluding comments Alan. Would be a very smart move for Melbourne to take this particular aspect of its heritage WAY more seriously.

    And not just for visitors’ sakes alone. I am sure there are many Melburnians who would hate to see the W class and other models largely disappear or be reduced to an occasional (truly ‘touristy’ in the tokenistic sense) vintage/restaurant type novelty act!

    During AFL season, the sight of W class trams painted in full AFL team colours coupled with the experience of making a trip on one to the MCG for the big game, surrounded by fully decked out team supporters, would also vividly proclaim and highlight the essential spirit of Melbourne … again for locals and tourists alike.

    (By way of example, in the case of Collingwood, the ‘flagpies’, the stripes would also achieve major, almost pop art visual impact, thereby adding further interest to what might otherwise be a fairly predictable and visually unexciting streetscape. In fact, it is the fantastic colours of San Francisco’s heritage streetcars that really add even more flair to the pleasure of onlookers.)

    Unfortunately as has occurred with so much of Melbourne and Australia’s great urban heritage, it is very easy to take for granted such matters and in the process too readily and too philistinely lose the very essence of what adds some genuine soul to the city.

    It should be stated, that these trams ALONE can never constitute the Melbourne brand, just as a logo or simple slogan do not constitute a brand either. But in terms of what we would all instantly associate with a city and what helps make it truly distinctive (providing us with that necessary emotional connection), the role of the W Class should never be underestimated.

    They truly have reinforced and helped add visible meaning and authenticity to the city’s prospective brand credibility. Something the US cities reintroducing their heritage trams seem to really understand … with the returns from the associated costs measured by more substantive and far sighted means than may be occurring in Melbourne, if the National Trust’s proposal is not fully adopted and wholeheartedly pursued!

    Finally, it would be tragic indeed if Melbourne turned out to be essentially ‘selling its soul’ to other world cities, so that those cities could try to more deliberately (and enlightenedly) recreate what Melbourne ALREADY HAS!!

    (BTW, that the ‘Market Street Railway’ link accessed by that trams graphic at the bottom of your post is a beauty. Definitely worth opening up and exploring further. Even has the history of how Melbourne donated a W class tram to San Francisco.)

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