Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company cable tram set

Cable trams ran in Melbourne for fifty-five years. However, the cable trams themselves changed little over this period, so that the tram that opened the system on the Richmond line on 11 November 1885 was identical to the tram that operated the last service on the Northcote line on 26 October 1940. Therefore the cable tram set in our collection, consisting of dummy No 28 and trailer No 256, is representative of all the cable trams that ran in Melbourne.

Cable tram with trailer No 78 about to cross Spring Street into Collins Street. Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia Cable tram with trailer No 78 about to cross Spring Street into Collins Street.
Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia.

Cable trams in Melbourne almost always consisted of two carriages. The leading carriage was known as the dummy or grip car, and was of open construction. In the centre of the dummy were the levers to operate the cable grip mechanism and the brakes. The grip was used to attach the tramcar to the cable that moved a tunnel beneath the roadway, travelling at a speed between 8 and 13 mph. Two different types of brakes were fitted to the grip car, being the wheel brakes which operated directly on the wheels through cast iron brake shoes, and the track brakes which jammed blocks of hardwood against the rails. None of the levers were power assisted, all being operated by the strength of the gripman.

As a result, gripmen tended to be large and strong, and also be the proverbial two axe handles across the shoulders. Gripmen were also prominent in the ruck and full-forward positions of many VFL and VFA football teams, due to their size and strength.

When the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company (MTOC) surrendered its operating lease to the Melbourne Tramways Board (MTB) on 1 July 1916, it had 490 dummy cars built to two very similar designs, both with four wheels. The slightly older design – known as six-post dummy cars – consisted of cars imported from the United States manufacturer John Stephenson of New York, together with some built locally by MTOC at its Nicholson Street Workshops in North Fitzroy. MTOC later simplified the design at its workshops, producing the four-post dummy.

From 1916 until 1925 the MTB and its successor organisation the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB) would build (or acquire from the independent Northcote line) another 102 dummies. MTOC dummy car No 28 is one of the earlier six-post dummies, but is typical of all dummies used between the opening of the system in 1885 and its closure in 1940.

The second carriage in a Melbourne cable tram set was known as the trailer car, and was towed by the dummy. The vast majority were of the same type, known as eight-window trailer cars. When the MTB took over from MTOC in 1916, there were 472 eight-window trailer cars. The remainder of the trailer car fleet consisted of two open cross-bench cars used on the Royal Park horse tram line, 56 large twelve-window bogie trailer cars used exclusively on the Elizabeth Street routes, and four small six-window trailer cars. There had previously been more six-window cars, but many had been spliced together to create some of the twelve-window trailers, and others had been sold with the Kew and Hawthorn horse tram lines.

The first trailer cars were imported from the United States manufacturer John Stephenson of New York, although the vast majority were constructed by MTOC at its Nicholson Street Workshops to the same basic design, which was based on American horse tram practice.

The MTB and the M&MTB would build (or acquire from the independent Northcote line) another 67 trailer cars up until 1925, most of them being standard eight-window trailer cars. Trailer car No 256 is a typical example of a standard eight-window trailer car.

Cable trams were permanently allocated to specific routes and were painted to match, removing the need for them to carry destination signs – important in an era when literacy was not universal. In addition they were painted with the routes on which they travelled. Routes were indicated at night by the display of kerosene lamps showing through coloured glass. Only five different colours were used, despite the large number of routes (17 in total), care being taken in the selection of colours to ensure that trams of the same colour on different routes travelled in different city streets.

Car colour Light colour Route City street
Red Red Prahran & Carlton Swanston
    Clifton Hill & Spencer St Bourke
    Northcote & Clifton Hill
    Brunswick & Flinders St Elizabeth
    Victoria St Bridge & Spencer St Collins
Blue Blue Richmond & Spencer St Flinders
    Nicholson St & Flinders St Bourke
Green Green St Kilda Beach (Esplanade) & North Carlton Swanston
    South Melbourne & Spring St Collins
    North Melbourne & Flinders St Elizabeth
Yellow Yellow Toorak & Queensberry St Swanston
    Windsor & St Kilda Beach (Esplanade)
    Fitzroy & Spencer St Collins
White Amber Brighton Rd & Queensberry St Swanston
    Port Melbourne & Spring St Collins
    West Melbourne & Flinders St Elizabeth

Both dummy No 28 and trailer No 256 are owned by the Tramway Museum Society of Victoria, and were restored to original condition in 2002-03 by a government-funded employment scheme, in the livery of a cable tram set operating on the Toorak line. They were then placed on long-term loan to the State Government for display as part of the Melbourne Tram Museum collection.

Technical details

  Dummy No 28 Trailer No 256
Passengers: 20 (crush) 34 (crush)
Weight: 2.7 tons 2.5 tons
Length: 16 feet 1 inch 23 feet 8 inches
Width: 7 feet 2 inches 7 feet 0 inches


Jones, R. (2008) Fares Please! An economic history of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, Melbourne Tram Museum

Keating, J. D. (1970) Mind the Curve!, Melbourne University Press

Macmeikan, I. (1956) Melbourne Cable Tramways, Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board