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The Soldier Who Defended Melbourne's Trams
As Sydney and others abandoned their trams, one man in Melbourne fought back
Surf’s up, mate! (Courtesy Australian War Memorial via Wikimedia)
After World War II, the Anglosphere committed an act of heinous self-harm: they tore out their cities’ most prized rails.
Within a generation after its wartime victory in 1945, cities and mid-sized towns on both hemispheres rid themselves of struggling tram networks, ripping out its rails to make space for automobiles. This phenomenon was found globally among the former Allied victors, from Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia.
In my home region of the San Francisco Bay Area, we lost not one but two streetcar (more commonly called trams outside North America) networks on both sides of the Bay. The Key System in the East Bay received an unceremonious death, led by experts like Arthur C. Jenkins, who I detailed in a previous S(ubstack)-Bahn post on a new history on why Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) never made it on the Golden Gate Bridge. As a consultant in the late 1940s and 1950s, Jenkins led a massacre of declining tram networks across western United States in cities like San Diego, Fresno, Phoenix, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.
Jenkins was a military man, serving under the Navy during World War II. One may wonder if the experience hardened Jenkins’ perspectives against rail and for cars. But another military man on the opposite side of the globe charted a wholly different relationship to mass transport. Like Jenkins, he worked in streetcar networks before the war. His military upbringing played an immense impact in his postwar career to preserve one of the great streetcar networks of the world.
As brethren cities like Sydney, Perth and Brisbane abandoned their trams, this military man fought the press, public opinion, local politicians and a global industry consensus to preserve Melbourne’s trams. He fought for them – with the spartan utilitarianism befitting a military engineer – because he believed trams simply were the most efficient mode of mass transport available for Melbourne. His imposing presence and total control of his political environs has been credited as to why no politician dared touch the trams.
Cities like Sydney and Adelaide have since rued their decisions and revived tram lines fractional to their former glory. But it is Melbourne who now boasts the largest tram network in the world, with 24 lines in service and 250 kilometers of track laid for service. The trams serve now as a civic symbol for the city and a core engine for the city’s modern successes. It is also a historic symbol of what went right for once in the postwar era in public transit.
In public transit, heroes are far and few between; the modus operandi has always been that an invisible transit network is the best network. But like in any occupation, we need our heroes and myths. For transit mythology may I propose the third chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB): Sir Robert Joseph Henry Risson.
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This story is the second installment of what I hope to be a running series in identifying and delving more into the men (it’s all men) of the post-World War II era who called the shots to irrevocably reshape urban mass transport across the world. I consider my story on Jenkins to be the first of that series.
Many discussions online eulogize the death of the streetcar/trams — but they rarely, if ever, delver into who killed them. Conspiracies or not, I think there is merit to uncovering the people who made these consequential decisions and learning (and hopefully not repeating) their thoughts and shortcomings.
I want to thank the academic Graeme Turnbull who have not one but two biographies on Risson available online, which I found to be comprehensive, thorough and filled with appropriate respect for Risson. I want to thank also the National Library of Australia and their online depository, Trove, which houses and digitizes millions of newspaper articles. I used Trove to get extra newspaper coverage of Risson from the 1950s and 1960s to add more color and my own research to Turnbull’s biography.
Sir R.J.H. Risson (Courtesy Wikimedia)
A Tram Man Goes to War
Risson was born in 1901 in South East Queensland, where he spent his youth and education to graduate as a civil engineer. In 1923, he joined the newly formed Brisbane Tramways Trust, getting his first hands-on experience working with trams. He joined the Australian Army Engineers in 1933; by the time of his enlistment in 1939 to fight in World War II for the Allied, he was the Permanent Way Engineer of the Brisbane Tramways which was expanding rapidly then.1
Risson was involved in Australia’s most involved campaigns of the war. Risson went to the Middle East to command a field company of engineers during the 1941 siege of Tobruk, a port city in Libya. For seven months, outnumbered and mostly Australian Allied troops defended the city from surrounding Axis troops led by Erwin Rommel in their campaign to seize North Africa. From March to May, just before the siege commenced, Risson played a critical role in improving Tobruk’s defenses.2 The Australians defended Tobruk with legendary fierceness, earning the nickname (coined by a British Nazi collaborator) “Rats of Tobruk.” 3
Risson was given command of the 7th Divisional Engineers to bolster Allied defenses in Syria. Then he commanded the 9th Divisional Engineers in Egypt during the two-part Battle of El Alamein in the fall and winter of 1942. During the battle, Risson helped clear seven Axis-laid minefields critical for Allied advances. In November, Risson was wounded in battle. He won Distinguished Service Order for his gallantry. 4
Risson returned to Australia to recuperate and was promoted to chief engineer. In April 1943, Risson led the 9th Division who returned home from North Africa through the streets of Brisbane – literally marching along the permanent tram right-of-way of his peacetime employer. The next year Risson was dispatched to Papua New Guinea, where Allied forces were engaged in a brutal, prolonged war campaign against Japan. 5
After the War, Risson returned to Brisbane to become Assistant General Manager of the city council’s Transport Department. Brisbane, under Risson and the General Manager Sydney Quinn, were all in on trams, experimenting with new technologies to make trams more resilient and modern. Brisbane’s aldermen proclaimed then Brisbane “led the way in the construction of the finest tramcars in the world.”6
Even during wartime, Risson never forgot his love of trams. Per one Australian historian who met Risson during wartime:
“The Chief Engineer on Corps was Brigadier Bob Risson. He was a splendid man and greatly devoted to trams as a means of transport. If the DDMS [Deputy Director of Medical Services], Harry Furnell, thought things were getting dull in the mess, he would tell Bob that steel-on-steel was an outdated form of transport. The CE [Chief Engineer] would then explain very convincingly why it was not. He became head of the [Melbourne and] Metropolitan Tramways Board after the war.” 7
Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester shakes hands with Lieutenant Colonel Risson, before inspecting the 9th Division, engineers, Tripoli, Syria, 1942. (Courtesy Wikimedia)
Melbourne at the Crossroads
Since the 1880s, Melbourne saw a rapid boom in tramways. Private companies laid track and cables at a furious pace to connect suburbs to the core. The cable trams were so popular that Melbourne adopted electric trams at a much slower clip than its counterparts in Australia and worldwide. By 1918, a collection of private and municipally owned tramway companies carried 113 million passengers.8
In 1918, the Victoria State Government appointed a Board of Inquiry to survey tram traffic congestion in Melbourne. The next year, the Board was consolidated into the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB), an independent board which took over operations and planning for nearly all existing and proposed tramways within city proper.9
M&MTB’s first chairman, Alexander Cameron, carved a career in Melbourne’s tram industry prior. He was so highly sought that one local newspaper reported “there was only one man in sight (for the Chairman position), and he was Cr. Alexander Cameron.” Cameron was a big believer in the superiority of trams as an efficient mode of transport, and his 1923 visit to Europe convinced him further to double down on M&MTB’s investments into the tram network.10 Under Cameron, M&MTB began the citywide conversion to electric traction.
Cameron’s successor in the 1930s, Hector Hercules Bell, was not a tram loyalist. In 1938, Bell traveled abroad to learn foreign trends in mass transport and fell in love with London’s double-decker buses. He was so enamored by them that he phoned home to Melbourne to immediately stop the planning of converting cable trams to electric on Bourke Street.11
Bourke Street is one of Melbourne’s central thoroughfares, dotted with theaters, restaurants and shops. Akin to Market Street in San Francisco or Madison Avenue in New York City, Bourke Street is the commercial and civic heart of Melbourne. Bell’s decision to introduce double-decker buses on Bourke Street in lieu of trams turned out to be unsuccessful. Despite the buses able to carry the high demand of Bourke Street, riders complained of slow loading times with one entrance, crowding and the excessive fumes. By 1943, M&MTB reversed its decision on Bourke Street and voted to return to electric trams. Due to wartime shortages, the conversion would take several years.12
Bourke Street with the double-decker buses (Courtesy of State Library Victoria via Melbourne Tram Museum)
In 1948, Victoria’s Premier Thomas Holloway returned from an overseas trip of his own and noted other countries have begun abandoning their tram networks. His Government requested an urgent report on the merits of trams, trolleybuses and buses on Bourke Street from M&MTB. Bell delivered the report and convinced Holloway to continue the Bourke Street electric tram conversion; it would be one of his last acts as M&MTB Chairman before stepping down in 1949.13
In postwar Australia, like other Allied nations including the United States, tramways were out of vogue and active plans were being made to replace them with buses. But unlike most cities, Melbourne already experimented with replacing trams with buses on Bourke Street – and realized its shortcomings rapidly. Despite rising pressure, especially from the automotive industry groups such as the Chamber of Automotive Industries, Melbourne was holding onto its trams as Bell retired. They would need a new Chairman to champion trams in face of increasing hostility.
Risson Fights a Lonely War
The 48-year-old Risson walked into M&MTB facing a litany of issues beyond tram retention. The postwar euphoria had worn off by 1949. Australia faced major shortages in goods and supplies. A strong labor movement, including Melbourne’s tram workers, were demanding higher salaries (and equal pay for women who joined M&MTB). Despite strong union presence, M&MTB faced major staff shortages.
To overcome critical staff shortages, Risson and his Board purchased suburban hostels for recently arrived migrants who could provide staffing for a desperately short-staffed workforce. This decision caused a political maelstrom, with one Victoria Legislative Assemblymember calling for Risson to be fired, Bell to be reinstated and a Commission created to investigate this scandal.14
Risson weathered media-made storms as well as political ones. From the first years of Chairman, Risson defended his trams. In 1952, Risson told The Herald that while trolleybuses may be introduced it could never replace trams as trams could move more people.15 In 1953, Risson defended the still-ongoing Bourke Street electric tram conversion to the Minister of Transport, justifying trams as more efficient in moving larger groups of people and that buses required fuel and rubber, which Australia was short on at the time.16 By 1956, the conversion to electric trams on Bourke Street was complete and Melbourne’s tram network grew – a total anomaly compared to national trends.17
The dismantling of tram networks was in full swing nationwide, and most state capital cities in Australia stopped running its trams by 1960. Perth was first in 1958; then followed Adelaide and Hobart. The biggest kill came from Melbourne’s archrival, Sydney.18
Sydney boasted the largest tram network in the Southern Hemisphere and second largest in the Commonwealth behind London. The rise of the private automobile starting in the 1930s created congestion and road space issues across the city. During World War II, much of the network fell into disrepair.19
In the late 1940s, the New South Wales government commissioned experts from London to write a report on Sydney's public transport system. The report, authored by London Transport executives GF Sinclair, AF Andrews and ER Ellen, concluded with recommendation for the total closure of Sydney’s tramways in phases by 1960. In 1953, the Minister of Transport announced New South Wales will not be purchasing any more new trains and existing services will be replaced into buses.20 In 1957, another report from New York-based transport consultants Ebasco seconded the continued replacement of trams for buses in Sydney, putting the coup de grace on the dying network.21 On February 25, 1961, the very last tram in Sydney concluded its final journey.
Farewell notices on a tram at the Watsons Bay terminus on the last day of operations on that line, 10 July 1960. (Courtesy Peter Sage/Lindsay Bridge Collection via The Guardian)
In Risson’s hometown of Brisbane, the end of the tram came much later but just as swiftly as Sydney’s. In 1962, a tram depot fire destroyed 20 percent of Brisbane’s fleet. The fire was a golden opportunity for Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Clem Jones who – after being enamored with the American transportation bombast of highways and large roads for cars – commissioned a report which put in writing the total replacement of Brisbane’s trams with diesel buses.22
Despite sustained local resistance to its closures, and a major labor strike in 1968 to save the trams, Brisbane – who a generation ago under Risson and his boss Sydney Quinn boasted its fleet had the finest technology found anywhere – held its last tram ride in November 1969.23 Melbourne was the last city standing.
Leading the Men Into Action
A month after Brisbane shuttered its tram network, the Metropolitan Transport Committee – led by the Victoria state government under Liberal Premier Henry Bolte – released the 1985 Transport Plan for Melbourne. The plans called for heavy investments in freeways and car-centric transport but Risson and M&MTB scored a triumph unfound anywhere in Australia: Melbourne’s trams were to be retained indefinitely, and even invested for future expansions.24
For Robert Risson, who chaired M&MTB for two decades, the Transport Plan was the culmination of his work. His job was not easy in face of a nationwide pressure to move past trams and his M&MTB had to make sacrifices. M&MTB replaced all-night tram services and select Sunday tram routes with buses in the 1950s. No new tram extensions were developed after his retirement. In the entire 1960s, there were no new tram rolling stock to replenish the aging Melbourne fleet. Tram ridership kept declining since its post-war peak.25
But Risson had some wins, too. When the city planned road improvements on St. Kilda Road, a major thoroughfare just south of the city core, M&MTB successfully convinced to place the tram tracks in the center median strip separate from the roadway — a practice adapted recently and widely in European cities with tram networks. St. Kilda now runs nine of Melbourne’s 24 tram lines, making it one of the busiest tram corridors in the world.26
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Risson continued to support Melbourne’s trams at any speaking opportunity. In April 1963, at the Institution of Engineers conference in Adelaide, Risson said for a modern city to prosper, modern transportation facilities were necessary and needed support. He also reaffirmed his policy of retaining trams in Melbourne and spoke hopefully of underground tramways under Bourke and Swanston Streets in the city core.
In 1970, Risson spoke at the “Y” Club on the topic “Transport Present and Future.” Risson recently came back from an overseas trip through Europe and North America and spoke highly of tram networks still preserved in the cities, such as Boston, San Francisco and Toronto. He declared trams were still the “In Thing,” according to The Australian Jewish News.
“People who tell you trams are finished don’t know what they are talking about,” said Risson.
As a decorated Major-General from his World War II days, Risson ran M&MTB like a military unit and carried a reputation of being pompous, brutally honest and intimidating. He was tall and spoke with a booming voice. Many staff remembered his zero-tolerance for any activities he considered “improper” and the distinct way he said the word.
In the 1960s, tramway workers’ union hoped for a relaxing of its uniform code during the brutally hot Australian summers, with shorts being in play. Risson, who always wore a suit with a Homburg hat, rebuffed, believing in no shortcuts for professionalism.
Like he did in Tobruk or El Alamein, Risson never shied away from being an example to his subordinates. In 1963, a tram driver died after he fell from the roof of a tram while attempting to replace an overhead trolley pole after the rope snapped. The tram depots issued a ban on drivers climbing the tram roof to replace the trolley pole. Risson wrote to the trams that the ban be lifted as he argued was safe if instructions were followed.
Upon request from the secretary of the employees’ association to “lead his men into action’ as deemed appropriate, the next day Risson himself climbed atop a tram to demonstrate how to replace an overhead trolley pole in front of workers and a media scrum who gathered to televise Risson’s repairs.27
Risson demonstrating the replacement of a trolley pole. (Courtesy The Age via Melbourne Tram Museum)
Risson retired in 1970 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II that year. Only shortly after his retirement, public opinion in Australia began to turn back onto mass public transportation, such as trams. In 1971, Victoria State Transport Minister Vernon Wilcox told the press “‘I had my doubts about the future of trams a few years ago, but no longer.” 28
In 1974, transportation academic Derek Scrafton credited Risson for “his faith in trams, along with a few others in a handful of cities in North America and mainland Europe when other cities in Australia followed the British example and got rid of trams as fast as possible.
“The world has now vindicated Sir Robert with talk of new interurban light rapid transit, supertrams or whatever you care to call them,” said Scrafton.29
Risson was active in public life until his death in 1992 at the age of 82. Two years after his death, a tram terminus on Elizabeth Street was named after Risson and a plaque was placed at the terminus to memorialize his 21 years of service.
Sir Robert Risson Tram Terminus on Elizabeth Street. (Courtesy of Trams Downunder)
Risson, Vindicated? Closing Thoughts
Risson was a tram man, but he was not dogmatic to one mode of public transport. For one, in 1968, Risson spoke highly of trolleybuses which like trams were out of favor.
“Trolleybuses, I regret, are out of fashion and will disappear altogether, wrongly in my opinion,” said Risson giving a lecture at Melbourne University. “They are excellent vehicles, smooth, quiet, odourless, with good hill climbing characteristics, using locally generated power. I think it is a mistake to let them go, but going they are.”30
Risson, I imagine, would have spoken highly of our more high-capacity modes of public transport as well. But he was a tram man, not only because he was molded by trams through his entire career, but Melbourne too was shaped by trams as well. Melbourne’s flat topography, wide city streets and grid layout lent favorably to trams in its adolescence. Time and time again, Risson has remained consistent on why he supported trams: it was the most efficient mode available to Melbourne to move large volumes of people from the city center to its suburbs. Buses and private automobiles were simply too insufficient to give up entirely on trams. Subways and Metros were never in the picture for Risson.
This line of thinking is in direct contrast to Arthur C. Jenkins, the Bay Area-based transportation consultant who persuaded many western U.S. cities to abandon the streetcars for buses at the same time Risson was head of M&MTB. He was utterly convinced urban rail was a folly from an antiquated time. In 1949, Jenkins wrote this in the modernization plan he penned for Los Angeles which led to the dismantling of the Pacific Electric Railways, the largest interurban streetcar network in the United States:
The theory so often propounded that retention of rail lines enhances public values and adds intrinsic importance to the community it serves is as obsolete as the rail equipment itself… [No other industry is] so persistently beset with militant opposition in its efforts to follow the natural course that good business judgment dictates, in attempting to maintain a reasonable margin between revenue and cost of providing service. It is inconceivable that anyone could advocate the preservation of outmoded facilities whose cost of operation far exceeds the revenues earned and insist upon further heavy capital investment to insure the preservation of such a losing project.”
Risson privately told his friends that the credit for retaining the trams in Melbourne was a collective effort. Some have questioned Risson’s impact as there was no formal proposal to abandon Melbourne’s trams. But as academic Graeme Turnbull notes, Risson “had the war won before the battle started” on the question of trams in Melbourne by being an immensely vocal supporter with the personality and the military decorations to match.31 No government body or outside influences could penetrate Risson’s ironclad support for trams. Political maneuvering to convince the Board outside Risson would have been impossible too; Risson has been heard saying “I am the Board” or “I am the hierarchy” in an outburst.32
If there is credit to be shared as Risson confided, it should be with the governance and institutions set up before Risson appeared on set. Melbourne was uniquely protected thanks to the formation of the public-owned M&MTB (which became defunct in 1983 due to multiple mergers of other transit agencies). Risson’s predecessors Cameron and Bell laid strong foundations for his work. Bell’s dalliance with buses on Bourke Street gave Melbourne a rare pre-WWII taste of ridding trams, to which Melburnians reacted very negatively and laid valuable experience for M&MTB once the reckoning came against trams internationally. M&MTB’s board structure allowed Victoria Premiers and State Transport Ministers to be unable to bully Risson and the management to submission, as was evident in Sydney during its consultant-backed movement to shut down the much larger tram network.
In online spaces where public transit is positively viewed, the mid-century international trend of clearing away streetcars wholesale for cars and buses have always drawn deep confusion, anger, sadness and nostalgia. With the benefit of hindsight, we know it was a calamitous decision to abandon them. But now, through Risson, we also now know there were people at the top of municipal mass transport who recognized it was a calamitous decision as it was occurring. Risson clears the air: there were people with power who did the right thing.
Nearly a half-century later, we can now see Risson’s resolve in full bounty. The only regret remaining for us, perhaps, is what it could have been had we had less Arthur Jenkinses and more Robert Rissons.
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