Fares please! An economic history of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board

The Risson era

The chairmanship of the M&MTB under Robert Risson spanned 21 years from 1949 to 1970, and can be basically divided into two phases. The first covered the period from his appointment in October 1949 until 1955, when the State Government was in favour of increased investment in the Melbourne tramway system, despite the short duration of most ministries during this period. This pro-tram view enabled the M&MTB to correct the deferral of much needed capital expenditure from the austerity imposed by wartime priorities. Furthermore, the effective conversion of cable tram routes to electric traction was completed with the replacement of the former Bourke Street routes from bus to tram operation in 1955-56 [18]. During this period there were two other additions to the Melbourne system [19].

The second phase of the Risson chairmanship was heralded by the election of the Bolte Coalition State Government in 1955. This Government was vehemently anti-tram and pro-motor vehicle, reflected in the dramatic winding back of capital expenditure between 1955-56 and 1958-59, where the M&MTB was effectively starved of funds. The outcome of this was that Melbourne saw no new trams [20] or tram routes [21] during the remainder of the Risson regime.

This squeeze on capital expenditure was relaxed for the two financial years of 1964-65 and 1965-66 – but not for trams. Instead this initiative was primarily for the acquisition of 100 AEC [22] Mark VI buses and the construction of Doncaster Bus Depot, which was a response to the effective failure of a private bus line to service the growing mortgage belt suburbs of Doncaster and Templestowe. This programme also ensured that the area continued to return State members loyal to the Bolte Government.

M&MTB W2 No 292 at St Kilda Junction, 30 August 1969. Photograph courtesy Mal Rowe. M&MTB W2 No 292 at St Kilda Junction, 30 August 1969.
Photograph courtesy Mal Rowe.

The redevelopment of St Kilda Junction in the late 1960s was the only other major capital investment during the second phase of the Risson era. However, most of this work was funded by the Country Roads Board rather than the M&MTB. Otherwise, the little capital available was ploughed into improvement projects with one of the following two objectives:

  • long term cost reduction, such as the progressive programme to renew existing tram tracks with new rail embedded in mass concrete
  • noise reduction of tramcars, such as the replacement of trolley wheels by trolley shoes with carbon inserts, progressive introduction of double helical gears on all tramcars [23], and widespread introduction of resilient wheels on a large number of tramcars. The objective of this programme was to make the electric tramcar more acceptable to the travelling public by removing one of the major complaints regarding their operation.

The largest impact on the financial health of the M&MTB during the Risson era was the booming economy. The growing availability of private motor vehicles discouraged passengers, not only due to a preference for more flexible and convenient transport, but growing traffic congestion made trams less attractive due to consistent delays. The result of this trend can be seen by the reduction in passengers per vehicle km from 6.51 in 1949-50 to 3.72 in 1969-70, matching the fall in traffic receipts.

Productivity indicators, 1916-17 to 1981-82. Source M&MTB Productivity indicators, 1916-17 to 1981-82.
Source M&MTB.

Another major factor in reduction in traffic receipts was the introduction of television in 1956, which cut into public transport usage as many families replaced regular visits to theatres and cinemas with an evening at home. This had an impact not only on the M&MTB but also killed many suburban cinemas, changing the face of Melbourne.

Furthermore, fare increases were subject to political approval, and not being electorally popular, did not keep up with inflation. Sir Robert Risson (as he later became) was well known and respected as an extremely capable manager, engineer and leader, so how did he attempt to control this difficult environment and attempt to run the M&MTB as a profitable business?

Firstly, he lobbied the State Government to amend the Tramways Act to remove subsidies paid to Consolidated Revenue by the M&MTB. In this he was successful, the payments to cover the Fire Brigades Board being removed in 1952 and those for the Infectious Diseases Hospital at Fairfield ceasing in 1954. Risson then pressed for a State Government subsidy to cover fare concessions granted to pensioners and students which he felt was not a fair charge on the M&MTB. With constant lobbying he was successful in achieving a partial subsidy of £100,000 per year for pensioners as from 1958-59, but could not achieve any better result during his tenure.

However, this was only playing around the edges. Around 65-70% of the running expenses of the M&MTB were associated with staff costs. The problems in recruiting staff led to high levels of overtime, so in order to try and address staff shortages the M&MTB conducted an extended campaign to recruit traffic staff in the United Kingdom. As a side effect of this programme, the M&MTB also provided residential hostels for immigrant staff.

Risson showed his mettle in opposing union demands in February 1950 for an over-award pay increase of £2 per week. A strike then started on 23 February. As a result of this action, the M&MTB sought and obtained the deregistration of the ATMOEA in the Arbitration court. The strike lasted for 60 days, collapsing after the Board agreed not to oppose re-registration of the union. When taken together with the effect of the coal industry strike from the previous July-August, passenger numbers and revenue fell sharply in 1949-50.

M&MTB W2 class No 311, Queensbridge, 10 October 1969. Photograph Mal Rowe. M&MTB W2 class no 311, Queensbridge, 10 October 1969.
Photograph courtesy Mal Rowe.

The biggest impact on reducing staff costs would not be achieved through reducing overtime payments, but by slashing operating costs through replacement of two-man crews with one-man operation of buses and trams.

The first attempt to achieve this was in November 1953, when the M&MTB attempted to introduce one-man crews on its 41 seat buses on the Clifton Hill to Point Ormond route. This generated a major industrial dispute [24] which the M&MTB ultimately lost in the High Court. Effectively, the M&MTB was constrained in that one-man crews could only operate buses with 32 seats or less, and only on routes already operated by one-man crews, or on new routes. This restrictive industrial relations regime made it impossible for the M&MTB to run at a profit, as its legislation effectively required, and would lead into the financial catastrophe of the post-Risson era.

The impact of this decision can be confirmed by examining a basic measure of employee productivity – vehicle kilometres per employee. This was effectively static around 7500-8000 kilometres per employee during the Risson era, the challenge of rapidly falling passenger numbers not being met by dramatic improvements in employee productivity.

As a result of the loss of this industrial campaign, future bus acquisitions were to be vehicles with 32 seat capacity to enable one-man operation. As a result M&MTB buses had a truncated appearance compared to those of private bus companies, which dealt with a much more pliant union (Transport Workers Union) that did not force the capacity issue, unlike the ATMOEA.

The subsequent purchase of 30 AEC Mark IV buses for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 was to give the M&MTB possibly the most evilly handling buses ever used in Melbourne, as the shortening required to comply with 32 seat operation meant that insufficient weight was over the rear axles, and the non-power assisted steering was extremely heavy. Under heavy braking, Mark IV buses were known to lose control and spin in less than ideal conditions. The M&MTB also undertook an expensive program to shorten a large number of its existing AEC Mark III half-cab buses from 41 seats to 32, leaving those so treated with the nickname of ‘bobtails’.

However, Risson did undertake a number of other actions to reduce operating costs, such as:

  • closing Coburg Depot (1952), Thornbury (Preston) Depot (1955), Hawthorn Depot (1965) and Port Melbourne Bus Depot (1966)
  • withdrawing all night trams (1957) and scrapping the single truck tramcars used for this service
  • withdrawing the Holden Street shuttle tram service (1957)
  • closing the Point Ormond tram route (1960) and local Footscray tram routes (1962), replacing them with one-man buses
  • progressive reduction in service frequencies and scrapping of surplus tramcars, and sale of surplus buses [25]
  • reduction in tram maintenance programmes
  • replacement of some Sunday tram services with one-man bus services.

Risson also took advantage of the closure of the Brisbane, Sydney and VR tram systems to acquire materiel and tramcars that would otherwise had to be purchased new [26]. Furthermore, he initiated design studies in the early 1960s to modify the W class tram fleet to one-man operation – however, this was to remain a pipe-dream given the industrial relations climate.

However, even these actions could do little to stem the tide of increasing deficits. The M&MTB was obliged to fund operating deficits through borrowings, as it had no other options to stay afloat. But it was not until after the departure of Sir Robert Risson from the position of Chairman that the M&MTB became technically insolvent, when in 1970-71 the total loan liability exceeded its capital worth by $300,000. The rules for Government-owned enterprises are different to those under which the private sector operates – had the M&MTB been a private undertaking, the Board members could have been charged with the offence of trading while insolvent.

The restrictive industrial legislation of the time together with the political environment prevented Risson from running the M&MTB as a viable business, so his struggle to make it pay was ultimately futile. The gap between expenses and receipts steadily closed from the mid-1960s. However the financial outcomes of the M&MTB were to decline even further.


[18] The proposal to use PCC-type cars on the Bourke Street routes did not proceed, due to the increased cost of construction and need to import traction equipment. Instead, tramcars of improved but standard Melbourne design of the W6 and W7 classes were constructed for service on these routes.

[19] Opening dates for new routes in the 1950s were:

  • Latrobe Street – 15 January 1951
  • Footscray – Maribyrnong connection – 2 May 1954
  • Bourke Street – Northcote – 26 June 1955
  • East Brunswick (Nicholson Street) – 8 April 1956

The construction of the last two routes required the opening of the new Preston Depot (1955) and North Fitzroy Depot (1956). The latter depot occupied part of the site of the Central Bus Garage, and due to its small size was operated as a satellite of Preston Depot.

[20] The order for W7 tramcars was reduced from 70 to 40 cars in 1956, leaving car 1040 as the last classic Melbourne tram to be built. New tramcar production did not resume until 1973. Body components produced for cars beyond number 1040 were used in accident repair of existing wide body tramcars – for example in the conversion of damaged W5 cars 785 and 787 to SW5 class cars.

[21] Construction of new tramlines did not resume until the East Burwood extension was built in 1978.

[22] One of the first policy decisions made by Risson was to reverse the preference for Leyland buses implemented by his predecessor, to a preference for AEC buses. Risson had personal experience with AEC equipment in his previous position with the Brisbane tramways, and was well aware of their technical superiority over the corresponding Leyland vehicles.

[23] The last spur-geared tramcar was modified in 1979 to use double helical gears.

[24] When there were disputes with the ATMOEA over bus operation, Risson would order that all Punt Road services be operated by Leyland OPS1 buses with crash gear boxes until further notice, replacing the AEC Mark III buses which had pre-selector gear boxes. This usually had the effect of settling disputes, as the OPS1 buses were extremely difficult to drive up Punt Road hill in South Yarra, and drivers would accede to his requirements in order to get the AEC Mark III buses back.

[25] After the conversion of Bourke Street routes to electric tramcar operation in 1955 the M&MTB had a large number of surplus buses. These vehicles were placed into store until the Olympic Games when they were put back into service, and sold after the Games were finished. Of these buses, thirty Leyland OPS4 41-seat buses that had been delivered in 1950 were sold to Perth, being driven in convoy by M&MTB crews across the Nullarbor Plain on the unmade track of the time – an epic journey by all accounts.

[26] Key items that were purchased by Risson from closed systems include:

  • Sydney: scrubbers 10W and 11W and grinder 3, GE247 tram traction motors (as used on both Sydney R & R1 trams and later Melbourne W class trams) and other ancillary equipment
  • Brisbane: large amounts of unused rail and special work
  • VR: luxury cars 52-54.

The purchase of post-war Sydney R1 class cars was considered as an option for replacing older W type and single truck tramcars, but was ultimately rejected.