Prince Charles has created his share of headlines with his passionate advocacy for environmental causes, architecture and historic preservation. His worldview on sustainability and urban development also embraces tramways, as disclosed in HRH’s recent visit to Australia.
In an address to the Housing Melbourne Symposium, the heir apparent to the British and Commonwealth thrones praised the Victorian metropolis for its commitment to historic preservation and “well used urban spaces,” as well as its dense network of electric tramways.
There is a certain poignancy in Charles’ remarks. His native land was one of the world’s greatest developers of tramway technology in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the United Kingdom exporting vehicles and other technology worldwide, including Australia. And yet, like so many Western industrial powers, the U.K. essentially exterminated its tramways wholesale between the 1930s and 1962, when the demise of the great Glasgow system left only the small, tourist-oriented system in Blackpool operating on mainland Britain.
Similarly, Australia also witnessed the demise of most electric tram systems in the postwar period. Sydney, once said to be the largest system in the British Empire after London, ran its last tram in 1961 (although modern versions returned in 1997). Adelaide’s lone line to the beach survived, but the big holdout was Melbourne, where foresight and civic pride led to the preservation and expansion of what is now the largest streetcar system in the English-speaking world, a comprehensive network of lines that even now includes a small number of vintage vehicles operating alongside cutting-edge modern trams. A representative sample of this colorful fleet can be seen in several photos that accompany this post, kindly submitted by my Canadian friend Greg Northcott, who has been visiting Australia.
Compared with some of his statements on architecture, for example, the prince’s views on the trams of Melbourne would seem fairly uncontroversial and benign. Yet just as his opinions have at times conflicted with policymakers on architecture and urban development, it is worth remembering that tramway retention and creation of new lines has at times been a lightning rod in the U.K. as well as Commonwealth nations. Just ask current Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Likewise consider the abortive Leeds Supertram proposal or the ongoing Edinburgh tram debacle.
Still, Charles’ symposium address to what was probably a broadly sympathetic audience is likely to ruffle few feathers. If anything, it is sadly likely to get lost amid the more superficial coverage of his visit to Australia and New Zealand.
If nothing else, his comments mark the second time Melbourne’s trams have received the Royal seal of approval in the past year, after Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh took a brief ride on a Melbourne tramcar during their visit to the city on Oct. 26, 2011.
Of course, the sovereign and her consort didn’t just wander into a queue to join the crowds for a trip down to Luna Park or a suburban ramble out to visit Edna at Moonee Ponds. This may well have been a private ride, but it was indeed a real workaday Melbourne tram, Z3 class car 158, specially renovated and decorated for the occasion. And there certainly were crowds — instead of jostling for a seat they were lined up along the sun-drenched sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the Royal couple. Finishing a walkabout, HM and HRH clambered aboard for a short ride to their next engagement, as the Herald Sun so artfully described the scene: “With a wave, and with St Paul’s bells pealing, the Queen boarded a royal rattler for a ride to Government House.”
For more on Melbourne’s trams past and present, see:
- TRAMS STOP HERE: “God Save the Ws: preventing cultural vandalism in Melbourne,” Oct. 18, 2010.
- TRAMS STOP HERE: “Backing the W-class: ‘Like Edna not living in Moonee Ponds,'” Oct. 25, 2010.
- TRAMS STOP HERE: “50 new Melbourne trams to be locally built,” Sept. 28, 2010.
- National Trust of Australia W Class tram campaign.
- Vicsig: “The premier Victorian rail resource,” dedicated to the state’s trains and trams.
- Public Transport Victoria: Tram procurement program.