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Passengers board the City Circle Tram
Photograph: Visit Victoria

Why are Melbourne's trams numbered the way they are?

The 1, 3, 5, 6, 11, 12, 16… is there any reason why Melbourne tram route numbers don't run in sequential order? We asked an expert

Rebecca Russo
Written by
Rebecca Russo

Take the 1, 3, 5, 6, 11, 12, 16… Trying to find logic in the current Melbourne tram route network can sometimes feel a little fruitless. Why do we skip from the 35 City Circle tram to the 48 North Balwyn to Vic Harbour tram? Why does the 96 East Brunswick to St Kilda Beach tram then skip all the way to the 109 Box Hill to Port Melbourne tram? And why is there a 109 anyway, when there are not 108 other tram routes?

It turns out the route number scheme we have today was rolled out way back in 1928. but that wasn't when trams were first introduced in Melbourne.

It was actually back in November of 1885 when the very first cable tram line opened. It ran from Bourke Street to Hawthorn Bridge, along Spencer Street, Flinders Street, Wellington Parade and Bridge Road. 

These cable-powered trams didn’t have route numbers but used colours to signify their routes as most of the population didn’t know how to read. Toorak was yellow, St Kilda Beach was green, Clifton Hill was red and Richmond was blue. The trams themselves were painted, so they couldn’t swap between routes.

According to Russell Jones, content manager at the Melbourne Tram Museum, other precursors to route numbers included route letters on some lines and even route symbols. The purpose of numbers was to help signalmen at busy intersections decide quickly how to 'set the points', or direct the tracks, to send trams where they needed to go. For example, if a tram arrived at St Kilda Junction, a signalman would switch tracks so that the trams could travel down either Fitzroy Street, Wellington Street or Brighton Street.

Since the installation of driver-activated automatic points (“and the disappearance of signalmen,” Jones adds) this rationale for route numbers wasn't as important.

Melbourne Cable Tram, Market Street c. 1900
Photograph: James Fox Barnard/State Library of VictoriaA Melbourne cable tram on Market Street, c. 1900

Today, just 25 tram routes operate in Melbourne (here is PTV’s list). But there used to be lots more. In 1962 (the peak period for Melbourne's tram network) there were 90 different routes. Over time, new routes were added, re-routed or connected (like, most recently, the 58 tram that now runs from West Coburg to Toorak).

Some routes also ceased completely. Some we wish still existed include the St Kilda-Brighton Beach (ceased in 1959), Sandringham-Black Rock (ceased in 1956) and Black Rock-Beaumaris (ceased in 1931). "From an economic viewpoint it is difficult to argue that services on these lines were sustainable, as they ran at horrendous losses," says Jones.

The oldest unchanged route? That would be the 78 (North Richmond to Balaclava), which has been the same since it was introduced in 1934. According to Jones, every other route has changed in some way. 

Women waiting on Spring Street for tram
Photograph: Greg Elms/Visit Victoria

Plus, did you know Doncaster once had a tram line? Yes, from 1889 to 1896, the first electric tram line ran from Box Hill to Doncaster, though it was actually categorised as more of a “bush tramway” as it passed by predominantly farms and orchards. It’s a good fact to throw out to people when they wonder why Tram Road is called Tram Road (it was built for the tramway!) 

Interestingly the number '3' wasn’t used in route numbers until 1968. It was omitted to avoid confusion with '8' – when wear and tear erased part of an '8', what would be left would resemble a '3'. 

Melbourne actually has one of the oldest and most extensive tram networks in the world. As Jones puts it, “over the last 134 years, Melbourne has been shaped by its tram system. As to what the future offers… all we have to do is wait to see what happens.”

If you've ever been interested in learning about the history of Melbourne's trams (and jumping on board an original tram from 1906) head along to the Melbourne Tram Museum in Hawthorn. Entry is by gold coin donation. 

All aboard! We ranked the trams in Melbourne from best to worst.


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