Tramway level crossings in Victoria

When trams were first introduced to Melbourne in the 1880s in the form of cable trams, the government owned Victorian Railways (VR) saw no reason to be accommodating towards what would prove to be a significant privately owned competitor for suburban passenger traffic, particularly if it was going to increase its own operational costs.

Clifton Hill level crossing, Darebin, circa 1925. Photograph City of Darebin Clifton Hill level crossing looking north circa 1925. The point work in the foreground is associated with the interchange between MTOC cable tram system, Clifton Hill depot and the former independent Northcote line.
Photograph courtesy City of Darebin.

VR therefore strenuously opposed any level crossings between cable trams and its own suburban rail lines, and due to its influence in Parliament was able to largely enforce this requirement. In fact, there were three level crossings at the time of the cable tram routes’ construction, two of them being uncontrolled with regard to safeworking procedures.

One of these was between the little-used industrial siding for Northcote Brickworks and the independent Northcote cable tram in High Street. The second level crossing was short-lived, being at Queensbridge where the MTOC South & Port Melbourne cable routes crossed the goods-only line between Flinders Street and Spencer Street. This was in existence from the opening of the cable tram line until the ground level goods line was replaced by the Flinders Street viaduct in 1891.

The third of these was the Clifton Hill level crossing on the Northcote cable line. This level crossing was only slightly north of the terminus, but due to a dispute with the VR commissioners with the cable tram company regarding safeworking procedures, the opening of this section of the line was delayed. Instead, temporary operations commenced from a crossover north of the level crossing until the dispute was resolved. This level crossing was controlled by gates operated from the adjacent signal box. This crossing was replaced by a low rail overbridge some years later. The bridge had insufficient clearance to allow the passage of the double deck buses that replaced the trams in 1940, which was only resolved by the excavation of the road under the bridge. The original level of the road at this location can be seen today, as the pedestrian footpath at this location was not lowered.

However, the railways had a difficult decision when building the Fitzroy and Inner circle railway lines, not long after the completion of the North Fitzroy cable tram route. In this case MTOC could quite rightly say that ‘we were here first’, and had no intention of paying for grade separation, especially given the barriers the VR commissioners had placed in front of the development of the cable tram system. This placed the VR Commissioners in a bind, as they did not want to pay for a railway or tramway overbridge. This difficult moral issue was resolved by taking the easy way out, introducing two cable tram/train level crossings only a few metres apart in Brunswick Street.

All other crossings of the MTOC cable tram network and VR rail lines were via under or overbridges from 1891 onwards.

It was not until 1906 and the introduction of electric tramways that tram/train level crossings started becoming relatively common in Melbourne. This was assisted by the strong support from municipal authorities for electric tram routes for developmental purposes, together with a much more flexible incumbent as the Premier, Treasurer and Minister for Railways, Sir Thomas Bent. This is not to say that the VR Commissioners did not continue to baulk at tram/train level crossings, and disputes between VR and the tramway trusts over this matter were not uncommon.

At first, these tram/train level crossings were relatively simple affairs, as all VR lines were steam hauled, and electric trams were viewed as road traffic. Safeworking arrangements continued to be minimal, although some had level crossing gates introduced.

Electric tram level crossing location Tramway opened Railway opened Railway electrified Comment
Epsom Road Flemington 1906 1860 1915 Railway overbridge built 1925
Glenhuntly Road Elsternwick 1910 1860 1919 Tramway overbridge built 1960
Glenhuntly Road Glenhuntly 1913 1880 1922 Replaced by railway underpass in 2023 as part of level crossings removal project
Glenferrie Road Glenferrie 1913 1882 1922 Railway overbridge built on electrification 1922
Glenferrie Road
1913 1890 1920 Still in use
Lygon Street
East Brunswick
1916 1888 1921 Inner Circle railway closed to passengers 1948, de-electrified 1961, closed 1980
Whitehorse Road
1916 1891 n.a. Outer Circle railway closed 1943
Riversdale Road Camberwell 1916 1891 1924 Still in use
Burke Road Gardiner 1917 1890 1922 Replaced by railway underpass in 2016 as part of level crossings removal project
Burke Road Camberwell 1918 1882 1922 Tramway overbridge built on electrification 1922
Nicholson Street Footscray 1921 1859 1921 Tramway overbridge built 1927, tramway closed 1962
Brunswick Street
North Fitzroy
1930 1888 1921 Converted from cable tramway 1930, Inner Circle closed to passengers 1948, de-electrified 1961, closed 1980
Brunswick Street
North Fitzroy
1930 1888 1921 Converted from cable tramway 1930, Fitzroy railway closed to passengers 1948, de-electrified 1961, closed 1980
Nicholson Street
North Fitzroy
1956 1888 1921 Inner Circle railway closed to passengers 1948, de-electrified 1961, closed 1980

However, two events would change all of this. The first of these was the electrification of suburban railway system from 1919 (testing was done on the Flemington Racecourse line from 1915), which introduced the complexity of intersecting overhead at different voltages – 1500V DC for the trains, and 600V DC for the trams. It is not difficult to imagine what would occur to the traction motors of a tram where they suddenly received current at two and a half times normal voltage, so rather elaborate measures were implemented to ensure that the correct voltage is always supplied to the wires over the actual crossings.

At each level crossing the rail and tramway overhead wires are at the same level and are fixed to a rigid framework, known as the overhead square. This area of wiring is isolated and supplies current at either 1500V or 600V DC via a switch interlocked to the position of the level crossing gates through a lever frame in the signal box. When the gates are locked in the clear position for the railway, current at 1500V is provided to the overhead square. At all other times the overhead square is live with 600V DC. An indicator in the signal box confirms the strength of the current by showing either ‘Railway’ or ‘Tramway’.

The second event was a serious level crossing accident at Deepdene in 1923 between J class tram number 65 and a steam hauled train on the Outer Circle railway. This clearly indicated that better safeworking arrangements were required at tram/train level crossings in Melbourne, when the following system was introduced.

Tram movements were regulated by a disc signal interlocked with catch points (or derails, in American parlance) as well as the level crossing gates. The discs are normally turned through 90 degrees to the stop position and are identical to the disc shunting signals used on the railway network, these being manufactured by the firm of Mackenzie & Holland, the local subsidiary of a UK company. A compulsory stop for trams is indicated at the disc signal by a single white bar painted between the rails of the tram track. On stopping a tram rings its bell to catch the attention of the signalman.

Providing that a train is not expected shortly, the signalman sets the disc signal and the catch points for the tram to proceed across the level crossing. Upon the tram proceeding across the level crossing, the disc signal and catch points are reset to prevent further tram movement.

Elsternwick level crossing, circa 1930. Photograph Public Record Office Victoria Elsternwick level crossing, looking west along Glenhuntly Road, circa 1930.
Photograph courtesy Public Record Office Victoria.

Over the years many level crossings have been replaced by grade separations, and level crossing gates have been replaced by boom gates, flashing lights and bells for those that remain. However, the system is basically still the same – and still requires a signalman to be listening for that musical sound of a tram gong.

There were three other level crossings between VR services and Melbourne tramlines – all on the VR St Kilda to Brighton Beach electric tramway. They were located in Fitzroy Street, Carlisle Street and Glenhuntly Road, and all were uncontrolled.

However, it was a little different for the tramways in the provincial Victorian cities.

In Bendigo, all crossings between tram lines and railways were by grade separations, with the 1942 extension to North Bendigo to service the Ordnance Factory being terminated at the Thunder Street level crossing, due to VR’s instance on an overbridge if it were to be extended any further. The Geelong tramways mostly followed this rule, but there was one tram/train level crossing just prior to the North Geelong terminus. This was for a rail siding to the grain storage facilities. There were no safeworking measures at all in place at this location, placing all reliance on crew vigilance – a situation that would entirely unacceptable in today’s safety obsessed environment, but perfectly OK for a tramway that closed in 1956.

The situation was much more interesting in Ballarat, there being a total of three tram/train level crossings at one time or another.

The level crossing that Ballarat residents would remember the best would be in Lydiard Street North, where the electric tramline crossed the main Western line of VR at the Ballarat railways station. This railway line has never been electrified, the crossing being controlled from an adjacent signal box with crossing gates interlocked with the railway signals. However, unlike Melbourne, there were never any tram signals or catch points to control tram traffic, entire reliance being placed upon the gates.

As a result, it was common practice for a tram to nose right up to the level crossing gates waiting for them to open so it could continue its journey on the single tram track.

This arrangement could require significant patience from tram passengers. The daily Overland express between Melbourne and Adelaide stopped at Ballarat in early morning and late evening, being scheduled for 15 minutes. This train nearly always blocked the Lydiard Street level crossing due to its length being greater than the platform length. The tram timetable tried to account for this, not always successfully. As most long-term Victorian residents will remember, timekeeping on the Overland could be less than optimal, so the stop either conflicted with the tram schedule, or else extended considerably beyond the scheduled 15 minutes, or occasionally both.

However, for the rail enthusiast it was always a cheery sight to view the ‘electric car’ waiting at the level crossing, despite the inconvenience to the tram passengers. Besides, it lead to great photographic opportunities for the enthusiast.

Unfortunately this sight disappeared on closure of the Ballarat electric tramway in September 1971.

Both of the other tram/train level crossings in Ballarat dated from horse tram days. Prior to conversion of the horse trams to electric traction in 1905, the Lydiard Street North line turned into Macarthur Street north of the railway station level crossing, heading for Lake Wendouree. It again crossed the main Western line at the junction for the Maryborough rail line, near the railway workshops. During the horse tram era, no safeworking procedures were in place for this crossing of the Western line or for the Lydiard Street level crossing at the railway station. The line along Armstrong Street was closed on conversion of the Ballarat system to electric traction, the level crossing being removed.

The final tram/train level crossing in Ballarat was associated with the Phoenix Foundry, which was situated in Armstrong Street, south of Sturt Street. This company was responsible for constructing some 357 locomotives for the Victorian Railways between 1871 and 1906. It also built a number of locomotives for other purchasers, including three steam tram motors for the Bendigo Tramway Company Ltd. The horse tram track outside its premises along Armstrong Street was used to test the steam tram motors, on occasion hauling several of the horse trams as trailers.

To service the Phoenix Foundry a railway siding was built branching from the Western main line near Doveton Street running south down Armstrong Street to the foundry. From 1885 there were two rectangular crossings of this siding with the horse tram tracks in Sturt Street, one on either side of the wide median of this thoroughfare. Again, there were no safeworking procedures in place to govern these crossings.

The crossing pieces themselves survived the electrification of the tramways in 1905 and the closure of the Phoenix Foundry in 1906. As the siding had fallen out of use, the southernmost crossing was removed during tramway reconstruction works in the 1930s. The other crossing piece survived until closure of the Ballarat tramway system in 1971. A few years later, this crossing piece was placed in the footpath of the median at this intersection with an explanatory plaque.

However, the sight and sound of a tram clanking and banging its way over a level crossing is still to be enjoyed in Melbourne.


Cross, N., Budd, D., and Wilson, R. (1993) Destination City (Fifth Edition), Transit Australia Publishing
Jordan, G. (2002) Running Journal No 155 January 2002, Tramway Museum Society of Victoria Incorporated
Keating, John D. (1970) Mind the Curve! Melbourne University Press
Keenan, David R. (1985) Melbourne Tramways, Transit Press
Railway World April 1973, Ian Allan & Co
Richardson, J. (1963) The Essendon Tramways, Traction Publications
Twentyman, A. E. (1971) ‘The Northcote and Preston Cable Tramway’, Running Journal October 1971, Tramway Museum Society of Victoria

Additional unpublished material provided by R.J. Atkins, K.S. Kings, J. McLean and G. Jordan.