Alone among Australian cities Melbourne has retained its trams as a major public transport system. They are a symbol of the city, especially in the inner area, where electric-powered light-rail vehicles provide a popular form of public transport. With 42 routes, 240 km of track, 633 trams and stops every 300-600 m, over 108 million passenger journeys are made annually. Trams are also a heritage feature of the city with strong appeal for tourists.
Melbourne's now defunct cable tram system was one of the most extensive built for any city in the world, and its current system remains the largest in the English-speaking world. Melburnians were slow to adopt trams of any kind, despite early observations that 'street railways' would benefit citizens who lived in the suburbs, offering them a ready form of transport to the central city. The division of local authority was an obstacle to horse tramways in the 1860s and 1870s, as were the political difficulties faced in securing the sanction of parliament if fixed rails were to be laid in the streets. Freewheeling cabs and omnibuses came to proliferate instead. The entrepreneur Francis Boardman Clapp formed the Melbourne Omnibus Co. in 1869, with a view to developing tram lines eventually on its horse omnibus runs to the inner suburbs. But not until 1883 was the agreement of the municipalities obtained and enabling legislation passed by parliament, giving the company - by then the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. (MTOC) - a 30-year franchise to operate a tramway system to be built and owned by a combined municipal Tramways Trust.
The delay had enabled Melbourne to avoid Sydney's unsuccessful experiment with steam-powered trams and to take advantage of the underground moving-cable system pioneered in San Francisco in 1873. Cable trams were a triumph of the land boom decade of the 1880s, encouraging further suburban development. By the end of the 1890s depression the cable system was no longer in the vanguard of tramway technology. The Melbourne cable tram system saw no new extensions after 1891. Districts not covered, or served only by horse trams (such as Hawthorn and Kew) now looked to electric traction.
In 1888 the Southern Electric Co. Ltd ran a demonstration electric tramway at the Centennial International Exhibition, and the equipment was later used for Melbourne's first electric street tramway, which ran between Box Hill and Doncaster from 1889 until 1896. Electric trams were sponsored by new alliances of the municipalities and venture capital, including the Prahran and Malvern Tramway Trust. A further need was for a metropolitan authority to take over the cable system when the company's lease expired.
In 1919 the newly formed Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB) took over the operations of the Melbourne Cable Tramways and the Royal Park Horse Tramway, in 1920 adding the Prahran and Malvern Tramways, Hawthorn Tramways, Melbourne, Brunswick and Coburg Tramways, Fitzroy, Northcote and Preston Tramways, Footscray Tramways and the Cable Tramway of Northcote Council. The electric system was extended, and the board progressively converted the cable system. Melbourne's last cable trams ran in October 1940 from Bourke Street. An important defender in the postwar era was Sir Robert J.H. Risson, chairman of the MMTB from 1949 until 1970, who resisted criticism that urged the scrapping of the tramway and its replacement with buses. In 1983 the board's functions were taken over by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Route mileage for the electric tram system reached an early peak in 1956, which (with the subsequent closure of some minor feeder lines) was not surpassed until the developments of the 1990s.
Melbourne's tramways have been a major employer, especially of immigrants and, over the summer months, university students. Like the wharves, they have been a stronghold of trade union militancy. Moves to replace tram conductors with automatic ticket machines saw a prolonged strike in 1989, during which unionists blockaded trams in the city streets. By 1998 Melbourne's much-loved 'connies' had succumbed to the new Metcard machines, and the tram system as a whole faced the prospect of privatisation.
A tramcar restaurant was established in 1982, and the completion in 1994 of the City Circle introduced a popular and free tourist service. In 1990, the National Trust classified the remaining 305-strong working fleet of W-class trams, built from 1923 to 1956. The Public Transport Corporation developed a heritage fleet of 25 historic trams no longer in regular service, including seven W-class trams of various designs. The heritage tram fleet is a popular attraction at open days at the old Hawthorn tramway depot in Riversdale Road, now redeveloped as a tram museum.
A 1978 Ministry for the Arts program ('Transporting Art') saw trams painted by 16 noted artists, including Clifton Pugh and Mirka Mora. The streetscapes through which these stately vehicles glide are vividly etched in the visual memories of Melburnians, and proximity to public transport is considered a positional advantage in real estate. In her important social study Journeyings (1993), historian Janet McCalman evoked an image of the No. 69 tram and its 'long journey along the spine of Melbourne's middle-class heartland, from St Kilda Beach to Cotham Road, Kew'. Melbourne's trams and their journeyings are among the city's characteristic and defining elements, notwithstanding public regret at the more recent demise of tram conductors and their replacement with the unpopular automatic ticketing machines. Full privatisation in 1999 signalled another break with the traditions of Melbourne public transport.