No stairway to heaven: the failure of double deck buses in Melbourne

The red AEC Routemaster double-deck bus is an internationally recognised icon of London, while Melbourne’s equivalent is the green and cream W class electric tram. However, few Melburnians now remember that for a period of fourteen years, from 1940 to 1954, double deck buses very like those of London were an integral part of the Melbourne city landscape.

Bourke Street, looking west from Spring Street, circa 1949. Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria

Bourke Street, looking west from Spring Street, with single and double deck buses, circa 1949. Note the open rear platform entrance on the double deck bus in the left foreground, and the abandoned cable tram tracks in the middle of the road.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria, Rose postcard collection of negatives.

The Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB) program to convert cable tram lines to electric traction resumed in 1935, after the recovery from the Great Depression, with the objective of replacing all the remaining cable tram routes. First to be converted were the three Elizabeth Street routes. While two routes – Flemington Road and Sydney Road – were converted to electric tramways, the third line to West Melbourne was replaced with single deck buses, due to the relatively low patronage levels.

Subsequently, for the same reason the Rathdowne Street and Port Melbourne cable routes were also replaced by single deck buses, while the heavily patronised South Melbourne Beach route was converted to an electric tram service.

The question of the three remaining cable tram routes to Northcote, North Fitzroy and Collingwood remained open until 1937, when the M&MTB resolved to convert them to electric tramways. However, the following year it was decided that due to the financial losses on the Collingwood cable tram route, conversion to electric traction was not justified, and it too would be replaced by a bus service.

This left unsolved the problem of what to do with the two remaining Bourke Street routes, to Northcote and North Fitzroy. These were very heavily trafficked, as they serviced the CBD’s main theatre and shopping district, as well as major suburban shopping strips in High Street, Smith Street and Nicholson Street.

In 1938, the M&MTB Chairman (H.H. Bell) visited Europe and North America to examine the latest developments in urban transport. Bell was so impressed by the advances in diesel bus technology in handling heavily patronised routes that he came away determined to convert the Bourke Street cable tram routes to bus operation. Part of the attraction of this concept was the potential to save costs by leaving the cable tram tracks in situ.

He prevailed upon the Board to support his decision, rationalising that after a twelve-month trial period, if the bus service was unsuitable for Bourke Street, the M&MTB could proceed with converting the routes to electric tramways as originally planned. The surplus buses could then be used on developing other services.

Leyland was successful in winning the subsequent 1939 tender for seventy bus chassis. Twenty-five were to be single deck Leyland Tiger RTS8c buses, with the bodies manufactured by the M&MTB Preston Workshops. The forty-five double deck buses were built on Leyland Titan TD5c ‘Gearless’ chassis. One double deck body was imported from Britain as a ‘knocked-down’ kit [1], while construction of the remaining forty-four bodies was divided between the Melbourne firms of Martin & King Pty Ltd (17 bodies) and Cheetham & Borwick (17 bodies), together with the noted Adelaide coachbuilder J.A. Lawton & Sons Ltd (10 bodies).

M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c line-up at the Central Bus Garage, North Fitzroy, 1940. M&MTB official photgraph

M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c line-up at the Central Bus Garage, North Fitzroy, 1940.
M&MTB official photograph.

Presumably, the body building contract was not awarded to a single company as no local coachbuilder had the ability to deliver all seventy bus bodies by the target date of March 1940.

The double deck buses were numbered from 201 to 245 in the M&MTB fleet [2], the fully imported bus being numbered last in the series. They were painted in the standard tramway green livery, with numbering and lettering in gold leaf. They were designed so that the top decks could be easily removed, as a contingency should the buses be required for wartime use by the Department of Defence.

However, the Bourke Street buses did not enter service according to their original March 1940 target. The Federal Government requested the M&MTB defer closing of the remaining cable tram routes until the cables were no longer usable, in order to preserve wartime fuel stocks. As a result, the buses did not start running until the evening of 26 October 1940, running on the Bourke Street lines to Northcote via Queens Parade and High Street, and to East Brunswick via Nicholson Street, the latter route being extended from the former cable tram terminus in North Fitzroy. The routes operated out of the new Central Bus Garage [3], located on the site of the old cable tram workshops in Nicholson Street, North Fitzroy.

M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c in Bourke Street, Christmas 1940. Photograph F.G. Naylor

M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c in Bourke Street, outside London Stores, in Bourke Street near the corner of Elizabeth Street, Christmas 1940.
Photograph courtesy F.G. Naylor.

By August 1943 it was clear that the conversion of the Bourke Street routes to bus operation had been a failure, for a number of reasons:

  • The Leyland buses used on the Bourke Street routes required the same two-man crew size (driver and conductor) as trams, but could not carry as many people (crush load of 90 for a double deck bus versus 150 for a W class tram), resulting in higher operational costs per passenger and reducing the rate of return.
  • Melbourne commuters were unwilling to travel on the top decks of the double deck buses, due to the difficulty of ascending and descending the stairway, particularly as most passenger journeys were relatively short. This had the knock-on effect of reducing fare income, due to the difficulty of collecting fares on crowded lower decks in peak hours. Installation of ‘honesty boxes’ to address this shortcoming was a distinct failure.
  • The open rear platform entrance and exit of the single and double deck buses introduced in 1940 increased kerbside dwell times, due to congestion of passengers boarding and alighting.
  • The lacklustre acceleration rate of fully laden Leyland buses up the Bourke Street hills was an additional contributor to poor timekeeping.
  • The buses were too small to handle the peak hour passenger numbers on the Bourke Street routes, leading to extreme dissatisfaction with the overcrowded service and its consequent delays.
  • The Leyland buses had a reputation for shocking passengers when alighting or boarding, due to the build-up of static charge, increasing their unpopularity with the travelling public.
  • The top decks of the double deck buses frequently collided with shop verandas and electric light poles, leading to significant repair bills and ongoing claims from property owners and electricity distributors.
  • The Bourke Street buses reached end-of-life in a mere fourteen years, while W class trams had a design life of thirty years – with the majority lasting for forty or fifty years in service. Over their entire lifetime trams made more effective use of capital expenditure than buses for high density routes.
A conductress punches the Bundy clock from M&MTB bus 201 in October 1942. Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial A conductress punches the Bundy clock from M&MTB double deck bus number 201 in October 1942. Note the rear panel has been painted white as a blackout precaution.
Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.

The M&MTB declared that the post-war conversion of the two Bourke Street bus routes to electric tramways would be a priority. It submitted this project as a part of a package of capital works to the Commonwealth National Works Council, to be completed within the first two years after the war. However, it would take significantly longer to achieve this objective.

M&MTB Leyland Titan bus 245 outside Selwyn Chambers, 505 Bourke Street. Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria

M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c number 245 outside Selwyn Chambers, 505 Bourke Street, demonstrating the problem the double deck buses had with overhanging trees, circa 1940. No 245 was the bus with the imported body, which was six inches narrower than the locally built double deck bodies.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria.

In 1947 the M&MTB further decided that no more double-deck buses would be purchased, and the existing fleet would be retired with the conversion of the Bourke Street routes to electric tramways. All future bus purchases by the M&MTB were to be single deck designs, due to the restricted route availability imposed by low rail bridges, and the history of problems encountered on the Bourke Street services. This policy would remain in place to the end of government-operated urban bus routes, and beyond [4].

However, due to a lack of support from the State Government, it was not until after the Cain Labor government gained power in 1952 that approval for the conversion of the Bourke Street bus routes to electric tramways [5] was obtained. This work commenced on 10 March 1954, the day after the conclusion of the Royal Visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II. The Northcote [6] route was completed on 26 June 1955, while the East Brunswick [7] route was not finished until 6 April 1956. Both routes were operated by W class trams – the true icon of Melbourne.

Undated view of M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c outside Selwyn Chambers, 505 Bourke Street. Photograph State Library Victoria

1940 view of M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c number 245 outside Selwyn Chambers, 505 Bourke Street. The lack of tramway livery on the bus indicates the photograph was taken prior to the introduction of bus services in Bourke Street.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria.

Worn out before they were ultimately replaced by trams, the Leyland double deck buses were all withdrawn by January 1954. Each vehicle travelled an average distance of about 429,000 miles over its fourteen years in service, never having been used on any other routes. The buses were sold in two lots, the first twenty in July 1953, and the second tranche of twenty-five in March 1955. Their new owners mostly used the buses as sheds or extra accommodation at holiday homes.

The Leyland double deck buses did leave one enduring mark on Melbourne – the lowered roadway under the rail bridge in Queens Parade, Clifton Hill, excavated so the double deck buses could clear the bridge.


[1] The imported double-deck body was 7'6" wide – the British standard – while the locally built bodies were all 8'0" wide.

[2] The double deck buses were given the Victorian registration plates AT-201 to AT-245, allocated according to the corresponding M&MTB fleet number:

  • Cheetham & Borwick bodies: M&MTB numbers 201-215 and 241-242
  • Martin & King bodies: M&MTB numbers 216-230 and 243-244
  • J.A. Lawton bodies: M&MTB numbers 231-240
  • Leyland body (imported): M&MTB number 245

[3] Now used by Transdev as its North Fitzroy Bus Depot.

[4] In 2015, the private operator CDC Melbourne acquired a double deck route bus for use in the Wyndham area of the western suburbs. This was the first use of double deck buses on urban street routes since the Leyland double deckers of the M&MTB, although double deck buses have been used on the express Skybus services to Melbourne Airport.

[5] The Bourke Street electric tramways built in 1955-56 now form a part of routes 86 to Bundoora RMIT and 96 to East Brunswick.

[6] The conversion of the Northcote route required the construction of a new depot in East Preston, which was closed in April 2016, having been replaced by the conversion of Preston Workshops to a running depot.

[7] The conversion of the East Brunswick route resulted in the addition of a small tram depot to the Central Bus Garage, and renaming of the facility to North Fitzroy Depot. The tram depot closed on 18 December 1993, although it reopened for a short period in 2008-09 while Southbank Depot was undergoing refurbishment.


The Age (1939), Bus Bodies – Double-Decker Contracts, 8 April 1939

The Age (1947), Double-decker buses to go, 18 November 1947

The Age (1954), Double-Decker Buses Go from City, 25 March 1954

The Argus (1941), Double-Decker Snaps Pole, 6 March 1941

The Argus (1953), Who wants to buy a Bourke St bus?, 30 July 1953

The Argus (1954), We lose our double-deckers, 25 March 1954

The Argus (1955), Like a double decker bus?, 1 March 1955

CDC Melbourne (2015), A little bit of London in Melbourne

Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (1935-1957), Annual Reports