Americans call them streetcars or trolleys, but in Britain and Australia, they are our beloved trams.
Melbourne has the largest operational tram network in the world. Its 155-mile network transports commuters almost to their front doors, not to mention that rides downtown are free. But pity Melbourne drivers, as trams stop and start and hold up traffic.
Love or hate them, one point Melburnians agree upon: Trams are a symbol of our city. None more so than the heritage W-class trams built by the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB) between 1923 and 1956. While Melbourne’s contemporary trams are sleek and slick, these W-class trams were “rattlers.” Some 752 were built mostly at the local Preston Workshop. The original Ws had a dual bogie layout, a substantial timber frame supplanted by a steel underframe, and fine craftsmanship.
Such details may interest tram buffs, but for Melburnians, it was the quirkiness of the W-class trams we loved. The clickety-clack on the track, the dinging bell, the sudden braking providing opportunities to fall on a stranger’s lap. The decor was like granny’s parlor with openable windows, hard seats, antique light fittings, and polished wood.
In 1975, Melbourne began replacing older W-class trams with contemporary European designs. When the transport minister announced the withdrawal of the W-class in 1992, heritage tram advocate Adam Dunning likened the loss to “pulling the Eiffel Tower out of Paris.” The National Trust of Australia (Victoria) continues to campaign for their preservation. Elton John bought W2 No. 520 in the 1980s, a move he described as a “drug-induced moment.” The tram cost him ten thousand dollars to purchase, but a million to ship to his country estate in England. Cities in the U.S. resurrecting their historical lines started adding Melbourne’s historic tram to their fleets. Now there’s a moratorium on selling W-class trams overseas, although the state government gifted a few to promote Victorian tourism.
Here’s where you can catch a ride on a heritage Melbourne W-class tram.
The City Circle Tram, Melbourne, Australia
In Melbourne, only a smattering of 13 W-class trams are in local service. The City Circle line whisks tourists around Melbourne aboard modernized W8 trams. Stop at Flinders Street Station, the historic Princess Theatre, the Old Treasury Building, Old Melbourne Gaol, and Queen Victoria Market — all 19th-century buildings. You are bound to meet cheeky locals taking advantage of the free ride.
Pro Tip: For Australian tramways, museums click here.
The MATA Trolley, Memphis, U.S.A.
Tram enthusiasts, put Memphis on your bucket list! As Regena Bearden, the Chief Marketing Officer of Memphis Tourism, says, “We love our trolleys! And visitors do as well.”
Hop aboard an authentic, vintage trolley and glide through historic downtown Memphis. At least nine of the Memphis fleet are W-class trams dating from 1925 to 1931. Others include ex-Porto, Portugal cars, built between 1909 and 1929.
Stop near notable tourist destinations like Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum, South Main Arts District, Mississippi River, Renasant Convention Center, downtown Memphis hotels, and restaurants.
The 2.5-mile Riverfront Loop route offers a picturesque view of the Mississippi River. On the last Friday of the month, South Main Arts District offers an open-house event from 6 to 9 p.m. with free trolley rides between Beale Street Station and Central Station and special openings at galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars with live music and performances.
For routes, head here.
The F Line, San Francisco, U.S.A.
Riding those Big Dipper hills and hanging on for dear life is one of the experiences most visitors associate with San Francisco. As well as resurrecting its own streetcars, San Fran has trolleys from Osaka, Milan, Switzerland, Portugal, England, and elsewhere.
Many operate on the F Line portion of San Francisco’s public transit system that runs from the Castro along Market Street to the Embarcadero, past Civic Center and the Financial District, before following the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf.
In 2009, the State Government of Victoria donated No. 916, an SW6 Melbourne tram built in 1946. In recognition of the donation, both No. 916 and No. 496 bear Melbourne logos, a reminder of Melbourne and San Francisco’s shared love of trolleys.
High Level Bridge Line, Edmonton, Canada
In 2004, Victoria shipped W-class tram No. 930 to Edmonton. Following truck and brake overhauls, the car entered service in 2006.
The tram is part of the High Level Bridge Streetcar fleet of three trams. The streetcars travel along the former Canadian Pacific Railway tracks between Old Strathcona and downtown Edmonton across the High Level Bridge, the highest historical streetcar river crossing in the world!
Enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the North Saskatchewan River from the 1913 steel truss bridge that sits 160 feet above ground level.
A roundtrip takes 40 minutes with stopovers at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market (Saturdays), the Alberta Legislature (free tours), or downtown Edmonton. The service is a great way to get from the farmer’s market to downtown.
Pro Tip: Cash only. Trips begin on the May long weekend and run to October. The Strathcona Streetcar Barn & Museum is open with free admission on Saturdays when the streetcar is running.
Sporvejsmuseet Skjoldenæsholm (The Danish Tramway Museum), Jystrup, Denmark
What do you give the couple who has everything? Australian Mary Elizabeth Donaldson married the Danish Crown Prince Frederik in 2004, and on the occasion of the birth of their son Prince Christian, the Victorian Government gifted them the No. 965 tram, a 1950-51 W6.
Mary lived in Melbourne in the 1990s and rode trams to work. So, of course, she would appreciate a tram!
Perhaps there wasn’t room in the castle garage to park one. Instead, in consultation between Melbourne, and the royal household the tram is in one of the world’s leading tramway museums, Sporvejsmuseet Skjoldenæsholm, in the middle of Zealand – the beautiful island where Copenhagen is also situated.
The royals inaugurated the tram into heritage service by driving it from the museum depot to the terminus on May 23, 2006.
The museum owns around 90 trams and 50 historic buses. Enjoy the beautiful scenery and period buildings, including an authentic shopping street that dates between the 1940s to 70s. Ride a tram into the forest and stop for a picnic. Tram lovers will delight in the endless procession of trams, including horse-drawn trolleys.
Pro Tip: Sporvejsmuseet is an hour’s drive from Copenhagen. The nearest train station with connections to Copenhagen is Borup. On selected days, a museum bus runs from Borup Station. The museum closes in winter.
McKinney Avenue Trolley (M Line), Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.
Matilda is a Melbourne tram driven deep in the heart of Texas. I love the personification in the naming which echoes Australia’s unofficial national song, “Waltzing Matilda.”
Matilda is W2-class car No. 369, was built in 1925, and was in continuous service in Melbourne for six decades before MATA purchased her in 1986. Matilda arrived in Portland, Oregon, by ship and was then trucked to Dallas. She has beautiful woodwork and is MATA’s largest operating car at 48 feet, 10 inches long, weighing 17.5 tons. Other trolleys on the line include 4614 Margaret from Toronto and 7169 Emma from Brussels.
The nostalgic streetcars link the downtown Dallas Arts District with the trendy shops, galleries, and bistros of Uptown, including West Village. With some of Dallas’s best bars and restaurants within steps of the trolley line try bar hopping or progressive dinner. The McKinney Avenue Transit Authority organizes the “Trolley Taste of Uptown” as a yearly fundraiser if you need some ideas.
As of this writing, the rides are free, but it’s nice to donate in the tip box. Click here for a map and live tracker.
Minnesota Discovery Center, Chisholm, Minnesota, U.S.A.
The Minnesota Discovery Center, formerly known as Ironworld, is full of the state’s mining history and has a small chunk of Melbourne.
The center uses two ex-Melbourne, Australia W2 trams built circa 1930, Nos. 601 and 606, to move tourists around the attractions. It’s a rare chance to ride a Melbourne urban tram in a rural area.
The narrated trolley rides take passengers on a scenic ride to the former mining community Glen Location. Immerse yourself in the history of the Iron Range and learn about the 1903 bunkhouse and 1905 Finnish boarding house. Relish spectacular views along the way.
Tickets are an additional cost to the regular admission fee. Note that the trolley runs seasonally and is wheelchair accessible.
Christchurch Tramway, Christchurch, New Zealand
Christchurch Tramway in New Zealand runs two Melbourne trams in its fleet.
Explore Christchurch in heritage style aboard W2 No. 244 (built in 1924-25), on a Christchurch Tram City Tour. Seven stops mean you can jump off and explore some of the city’s famous sites, including the Canterbury Museum, the Arts Centre, and Cathedral Junction.
Live commentary also covers the Garden City’s revival efforts following the earthquake of 2011. Over 4,500 vehicles were stranded in the city. Tram 244 took several weeks to rescue. She returned to service in October 2015 following a fine refurbishment including red and cream livery.
Tram W2 No. 411 built in 1926 is now the colonial Christchurch Tramway Restaurant, operating since 2000. Glide past the Avon River, the Canterbury Museum, and other heritage buildings lit up at night. Enjoy bubbly on arrival and a moveable feast showcasing New Zealand’s produce such as New Zealand lamb, pure mānuka honey, and cheeses. Pair the four-course menu with top NZ wines. The waiters don’t spill a drop. As one customer said, “I’m a regular tram user in Melbourne, and our driver, Larry, could certainly teach a thing or two to the Melbourne drivers about a smooth ride.”
Sadly The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant, one of Victoria’s most recognized and successful tourist experiences for over 35 years, ceased operating in 2018. Sometimes it feels like Melbourne’s historic trams are operating everywhere else but where they are most loved.
Pro Tip: In Auckland NZ, check out the trams Victoria gifted to the Museum of Transport and Technology (MoTAT).