Trams, Auckland’s past

There are no two ways about it, Auckland was a public transport city.

People have always driven of course, but the way many people got around was on the electrified tram network that our forebears built and enjoyed from 1884 (beginning with horse drawn trams, and with electric trams introduced in 1902) right up until 1956.

Now you have to be pretty old to really remember the tram network, and I’m about 20 or 30 years too young to have seen it in operation, though I do remember some bits of line were still visible when I was a child in the 1970s and 1980s.

But many of us know that there used to be a lot of trams around, perhaps without being able to fully visiualise just how many, then a year or so ago designer Cornelius Blank decided to make a modern metro-style transit map of the network. I think it really drives things home using a design language that many of us find easier to relate to than the more old-fashioned network maps that were previously available.

It breaks my heart to look at that network and imagine how different Auckland would be today.

The lines were everywhere. You could take a tram to Parnell, or Meadowbank, or Ponsonby, or even much further afield to Avondale, Mt Albert, or Onehunga, and there are stories that the trams were so popular and convenient that you’d often be able to see the next tram coming when you were getting on the one already at your stop.

But then in the 1940s and 1950s in a move of vandalism on an epic scale the lines were all closed, then the rails were gradually ripped up or paved over.

Now, to be totally clear about this some of the tram lines were economic failures – there weren’t enough people for them to operate. The Devonport line in particular lived and died over just a couple of years – but it was a horse drawn line in 1880s Devonport, 70 years before the harbour bridge opened up the shore. But other lines, popular, successful lines, were also shuttered and destroyed, with the now nameless bureaucrats claiming that we’d have a more modern transport network if we adopted diesel buses rather than continuing with the clean electric trams.

We now know with the certainty of hindsight what I’m sure many knew back then: this was a preposterous notion and a failure on an historic level.

But it’s a failure that we can start to correct if we wish it. It will take time, but we can do it.

I wish it.


Metro-style Auckland Historical Tram network map created by Cornelius Blank, used with permission.