Story: Public transport

Page 2. Horse and steam trams

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Tramways set up

The Tramways Act 1872 was the first legislation introduced to allow for the establishment of horse or steam tramways. Both local authorities and private companies were able to run services.

Many early tramways were established by private companies linked to land-development companies, and were used to promote the sale of suburban sections on the outskirts of cities.

Steam trams

Steam trams were introduced to Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch between 1878 and 1880. They remained in service in Christchurch until the tramway was electrified, but Wellington and Dunedin replaced them with horse trams after only a couple of years.

Steam trams were costly to run, polluting and noisy in busy congested streets. They were not suited to winding tracks or the continual stopping and starting required for an urban passenger service.

Steamed up about trams

When steam trams were introduced in Dunedin in 1879, cab and carriage drivers wanted them shut down. In 1880 a fire that destroyed almost all of the fleet – 34 cars, one engine and a wagon – was believed to have been deliberately lit. But the coke-burning steam trams were too dangerous and dirty to last long. They literally scared the horses, causing accidents, and covered pedestrians’ clothing and city buildings with ash. They stopped running in 1884, leaving the field to horses that had also been pulling tramcars since 1879.

Horse trams

Horse trams proved more successful as they were faster and could carry more passengers. Fares were lower because they cost less to run than steam trams. By the time Auckland established a service in 1884, horse trams were operating in the other three main centres and a number of other urban areas.

Trams encourage suburban development

Steam and horse trams provided a regular framework of public transport which people became accustomed to using. They also allowed the development of a suburban fringe to cities, for example in Wellington they led to the growth of the suburb of Newtown.

The capital expenditure and running costs of horse and steam tramways meant limited success for many operators. Auckland’s Tramway Company was insolvent by 1890 after running for only six years. In Wellington and Dunedin, ownership changed hands throughout the 1880s.

Cable cars

Cable tramways, used on steep inclines and powered by steam, were introduced in Dunedin in the early 1880s, and remained in use until the end of the 1950s when they were replaced by bus services.

The only other city to operate cable cars was Wellington, where a service was developed to the suburb of Kelburn in 1902. This was originally to provide access to residential sections being sold there. But more than a century later Wellington’s cable car is a feature of the city’s public transport system, as well as a popular tourist attraction.

How to cite this page:

Adrian Humphris, 'Public transport - Horse and steam trams', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-transport/page-2 (accessed 16 October 2018)

Story by Adrian Humphris, published 11 Mar 2010, reviewed & revised 11 Mar 2016