Birney Safety Cars in Melbourne

1908 saw the beginning of the battle between the private automobile and the electric tramway for the domination of urban street transport in the cities of North America – a battle that lasted for fifty years – with electric tramways slowly yielding to the private automobile. In September 1908 the first Model T Ford was produced, and the mass production of this car combined with its low price and simple but robust engineering were key factors in the rapid increase in registered automobiles in the United States from 77,000 in 1905 to over two million only a decade later.

The electric trolley industry had been the pre-eminent form of urban street transport in North America since 1887, when Frank J. Sprague opened his groundbreaking electric tramway in Richmond, Virginia. The convenience and independence the private automobile bestowed upon the travelling public cut significantly into electric trolley company profits, so management had to find a solution – either by cutting costs or increasing revenue.

Original Birney car, M&MTB X class no 217 at Point Ormond, 21 January 1953. Photograph courtesy Noel Reed. Original Birney car, M&MTB X class no 217, at Point Ormond, 21 January 1953.
Photograph courtesy Noel Reed.

But the private automobile was not the only competitor to the electric street railway – the motor omnibus also offered significant advantages over electric tramcars. Firstly, omnibus operators did not incur the massive capital costs required to build an electric tramway. Instead, they operated on roads provided by local government, even if the omnibuses were unpopular due to the damage they caused as a result of their weight and rudimentary springing. Secondly, early motor omnibuses were relatively cheap to acquire. Finally, the route flexibility offered by omnibuses made it simple for operators to adapt to changing passenger requirements, enabling them to keep tight control of costs and maximise profitability.

Electric trolley operators were also struggling with the twin challenges of increasing labour costs and fare evasion. Classical tramcar design was premised on the division of duties between a fare-collecting conductor and the tramcar driver. A roaming conductor did not guarantee one hundred per cent collection of fares, as it was possible for passengers to avoid the conductor’s notice. A more effective method of collecting fares was required, so efforts concentrated on managing passenger flow through the tramcar, using a ‘pay as you enter’ fare collection scheme (PAYE).

The first cars to use this concept as a design requirement were the PAYE cars delivered to the Chicago City Railway in 1907 by J.G. Brill. Various designs aimed at managing passenger flow through the tramcar were implemented, through the ‘Nearside’ cars built four years later for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company in 1911, culminating in the ‘Peter Witt’ cars constructed for Cleveland in 1915. These latter cars provided a baseline for tramcar design that was to endure over the next seventy years.

However, all these tramcar designs were premised on the use of two-man crews. Furthermore, they were heavy and expensive to build, and consumed large amounts of electric power in operation. A more cost-effective solution was required.

The solution was the one-man lightweight ‘safety’ streetcar, designed by Joseph M. Bosenbury and Charles O. Birney. The first of these, which became known as Birney Safety Cars, was delivered to the Seattle Electric Company in 1916.

The key design elements of the Birney were structured around weight reduction. This was achieved by elimination of internal bulkheads, lighter framing and provision of lightweight un-upholstered seats. Over two and a half tons in weight was saved through replacement of two bogies with a single truck, and two traction motors rather than the usual four. The result was a tramcar that was about half the weight of a standard bogie car – under nine tons as compared to seventeen to eighteen tons – with consequent savings in construction and operating costs.

Advertisement for the Birney One-Man Car as constructed by the J.G. Brill Company of Philadelphia. From the collection of Mal Rowe. Advertisement for the Birney One-Man Car as constructed by the J.G. Brill Company of Philadelphia. From a contemporary railway journal (1916).
From the collection of Mal Rowe.

However, the use of one man crews was of major concern, as in all previous designs the conductor was responsible for signalling to the driver that passengers had safely boarded or alighted from the tramcar. The removal of the conductor from tram crews was viewed as a major safety risk, so a radical design approach was taken to the whole problem of managing passenger safety. The Birney Safety Car was an early attempt at engineering safety directly into the design of a vehicle, the key element being the ‘deadman’ handle. This was a spring-mounted controller handle that had to be held down for traction power to be supplied to the motors. If it was released, the power was immediately cut and the brakes applied. This could be somewhat startling to the passengers, as the tramcar basically ‘stood on its nose’ when this occurred, and any standing passengers had a good chance of ending up at the front of the car in disarray.

Furthermore, the only access to the Birney car was through an air-operated folding door at the front of the car. Not only did this ensure that all passengers passed the driver, maximising fare collection capability, but the door controls were interlocked with the controller, so that it was impossible to start the tramcar until the door was shut.

One of the characteristics of the Birney design was the airy feel of the tramcar, due to the large windows. Even the design of the windows was influenced by safety concerns. The lower window sashes were guarded by exterior horizontal steel bars – a clear feature of the classic Birney design – while the upper sashes were fixed, preventing passengers from leaning out of the car and being struck by motor traffic, or – even worse – falling out.

Furthermore, the design was highly standardised and suitable for mass production. Over six thousand Birney Safety Cars were to be built in the United States and Canada over the next two decades, the majority by the J.G. Brill Company or its subsidiaries.

The Birney Safety Car was marketed to electric street railway companies as a cost saving device, particularly for more lightly-trafficked lines that were facing competition from motor omnibus operators. It was suggested that three Birney cars could replace two standard bogie cars, reducing the interval between cars (known as ‘headway’) and still cut power and staffing costs.

The Birney was a major advance in tramcar design, and many of the basic concepts behind the design are still in active use today. However, the design had significant shortfalls. There were no concessions towards passenger comfort – the hard wooden seats did not compare well with the upholstered seats standard in contemporary motor omnibuses. The use of a single truck meant that the ride was harsh and unforgiving in comparison to a bogie car, while the use of smaller and lighter motors meant that the performance of the Birney car was lacklustre. Additionally, the small size and low power of the Birney meant that it was not useful in heavy peak hour traffic environments where crush loads were the norm – particularly as one-man crews slowed passenger loading, and the Birney only had a single door, which contributed to delays in loading and off-loading passengers. The end result was that many companies resorted to two sets of cars: Birney cars for lightly trafficked routes and non-peak services, and cars with standard bogie design for peak hour usage. This was hardly a recipe for effective cost reduction. Ultimately, the Birney design was nothing other than a stopgap that held off the threat of the bus for less than a decade.

The early years of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board coincided with the heyday of the Birney Safety Car. In 1924, eight Birney cars were imported to Australia from the United States – four (numbered 301-304 and classified as MTT class 'G') were purchased by the Municipal Tramways Trust for use on its isolated Port Adelaide tramway system in South Australia, two by the Melbourne Electric Supply Company for service in Geelong (numbered 14-15) while the final two were purchased by the M&MTB, classified as class X and numbered 217 and 218. Surprisingly, seven of these eight original Birney cars have survived in operating condition to the current day – the exception being X 218.

Original Birney car, M&MTB X class no 217, outside the Melbourne Tram Museum, 29 May 2004. Photograph courtesy Mal Rowe. Original Birney car, M&MTB X class no 217, just outside the Melbourne Tram Museum, in Wallen Road, Hawthorn, 29 May 2004.
Photograph courtesy Mal Rowe.

The M&MTB had inherited a large stock – over 140 – of single truck tramcars from its predecessors, and was about to launch a massive tramcar construction program based on the bogie drop centre W class design. The Birney design was of interest to the Board as a potential replacement for its single truck cars on more lightly trafficked routes, as many of the single truck cars would be due for replacement within the next decade.

The two X class cars entered service on the Power St to Richmond shuttle service in June 1924, operating as one-man cars. The new American trams were judged to be a success, the media of the day particularly impressed by the large size of the windows and airiness of the interior. For most of their life, X 217 and 218 would be allocated to Glenhuntly Depot, running the shuttle from Point Ormond to Elsternwick during the day, and operating all-night services from late in the evening until dawn. The acquisition of these two cars by the Board was to be particularly important for the three routes on the isolated Footscray tram system.

Clearly the Birney experiment of the X class was a success in Melbourne, as in 1927 the M&MTB embarked on construction of its own variation of the Birney design, the ten cars of the X1 class, numbered 459-468. The origin of the design is clear from the exterior of the X1 class, the major variation being the addition of a second door at the rear of the car, eliminating one of the weak points of the Birney design – congestion around the door for exiting passengers. However, in almost all other aspects of the design the X1 class was a copy of the Birney, right down to the deadman controls, the air-operated doors and lack of interior bulkheads. Some concession was made to passenger comfort, as the wooden ‘flip over’ seats standard with the Birney design were replaced by upholstered seats recycled from scrapped single truck cars. Additionally, the increased weight of the X1 cars at a little over ten tons, together with higher speeds used in Melbourne traffic, required the fitting of two 50 hp motors, almost double the power output of a standard Birney car.

The X1 cars would spend most of their life operating on the Footscray local lines, replacing Prahran & Malvern Tramways Trust cars of the A class California combination design. They also saw some use on ‘all-night’ services, or on other lightly trafficked routes such as the Point Ormond line.

M&MTB X1 class no 466 waiting at Russell Street terminus, Footscray, 18 January 1954. Photograph courtesy Noel Reed. M&MTB X1 class no 466 waiting at Russell Street terminus, Footscray, before starting its return trip to Footscray Railway Station (18 January 1954).
Photograph courtesy Noel Reed.

In 1930, the cancellation of the final ten cars of the Y1 class, a Peter Witt design car, left the M&MTB with a large number of tram body components already produced by the Preston Workshops body shop, as well as spare mechanical and electrical components. As the M&MTB was a thrifty organisation, it constructed a further variation of the basic Birney design utilising many of the components already produced for the Y1 class. The end result – six cars numbered from 675 to 680 [1] and classified as the X2 class – did not look much like a Birney, instead appearing as a truncated and rather ugly version of the Y1 class design from which it was derived. They were colloquially known as ‘footballs’, due to the somewhat ‘egg-shaped’ appearance of the body, and their usage on Football specials at Footscray, conveying fans from the railway station to VFL games at the Western Oval.

Unlike the X1 class cars, the X2 had a single door on each side of the car, and was unusual in that it used large 33-inch wheels rather than the smaller 26-inch wheels used in its X1 class predecessors, while having motors of the same capacity. As a result, the X2 class cars were known for being slow to accelerate, and were not particularly popular with drivers. Like the X1 class, the X2 class cars were mostly operated on the Footscray local routes, with some use on the Point Ormond route and all-night services.

M&MTB X2 class no 675 in the streets of Footscray, 19 January 1954. Photograph courtesy Noel Reed. M&MTB X2 class no 675 in the streets of Footscray, 18 January 1954.
Photograph courtesy Noel Reed.

After the X2, no new single truck tramcars were built by the M&MTB, either to variations of the Birney Safety Car or to any other design. In 1935 there was a fundamental shift in transport policy. There would be no new tram routes operated by Birney-type single truck tramcars. Instead, all new lightly trafficked routes would be operated by motor omnibuses, and the M&MTB would subsequently become the largest operator of buses in the State of Victoria. Between 1935 and 1940 the West Melbourne, Rathdowne Street, Port Melbourne, Collingwood and Bourke Street cable tram routes were all replaced by buses rather than electric trams. New routes originally planned for tramways from Footscray to Sunshine and the City, and the City to Williamstown and Fisherman’s Bend were instead operated by buses. Only heavily trafficked routes were to see new tramway construction from this point onwards.

The Birney type cars of the X, X1 and X2 classes remained intact in Melbourne until 1957, when with the cessation of ‘all-night’ tramcars the two X class cars were withdrawn from service. The remaining cars of the X1 and X2 classes would not last much longer, being withdrawn in 1962 with the closure of the Footscray local routes – the only exception being X2 class car number 676, which was retained as a driver training car.

Unlike the Birney cars imported to Australia [2], most of the Australian copies produced by the M&MTB did not survive to the current day. Only two complete X1 class cars exist – number 467 in the collection of the Tramway Museum Society of Victoria, while number 466 was restored from a bare shell by a private tramway enthusiast, and can be viewed at the Ballarat Tramway Museum. Likewise, only two X2 class cars survive – class leader number 680 in the collection of the Tramway Museum Society of Victoria, and number 676 at the Melbourne Tram Museum, where it resides together with original Birney car X class number 217.

And the war between the electric trolley and the private automobile? One hundred years after the introduction of the Model T Ford, and fifty years after it was thought the battle had well and truly been lost, the electric tramway is undergoing a renaissance across the world, even in North America, home of the automobile – thanks to urban renewal projects, traffic congestion, the high cost of road construction, global warming and concerns over peak oil.


Brill, D. (2001) History of the J.G. Brill Company, Indiana University Press
Birney, R. (2004) The First Birney Streetcar,
Buckley, J.R. (1975) History of Tramways from Horse to Rapid Transit, David & Charles
Cross, N., Budd, D., and Wilson, R. (1993) Destination City (Fifth Edition), Transit Australia Publishing
Jones, R. (2005) Fares Please: An economic history of the M&MTB, Melbourne Tram Museum
Rowe, M. (1967) ‘The Birney Car in Australia’, Running Journal, October 1967, Tramway Museum Society of Victoria

Other sources

Interview with Doug Prosser (2009) regarding origins of the X2 class tramcar.


[1] Number 680 was the first X2 class tramcar built and was originally numbered 674, but was later renumbered, thus allowing the five contemporary W4 class cars to be numbered in a single block. Examination of this car by Doug Prosser during its restoration by the TMSV has revealed many indications of use of components recycled from the Y1 class construction program.

[2] Five Birney cars may be seen operating on the heritage tramway operated by Bendigo Tramways, while a sixth Birney is preserved at the Australian Electric Traction Museum at St Kilda, South Australia.