Electric tramways were developed in America in the late 1880s and rapidly spread worldwide. In 1894 a Tramways Act was passed to regulate the introduction of tramways in New Zealand.
The New Zealand Electric Tramways and Lighting Company of London offered to electrify the tramways in the four main centres. Auckland accepted the offer. Dunedin’s electric trams were also initially run by a private company. Christchurch and Wellington declined the offer, and it was only a year later that their respective city councils purchased the existing horse tramways and planned electrification.
Electrification of tramways began in the early 1900s. The first electric system to operate was in Auckland in 1902. This was followed by Dunedin (1903), Wellington (1904) and Christchurch (1905). By 1916 electric trains were also operating in Whanganui, Invercargill, Napier, Gisborne and New Plymouth.
Electric trams ushered in the era of affordable, rapid public transport, and fundamentally changed the shape of New Zealand cities. Their speed and greater carrying capacities allowed the growth of extensive suburban areas around cities.
There was much debate over which electric system to adopt for trams. The overhead trolley system was finally chosen. This meant ugly and potentially dangerous overhead wires, and an annoying hum. But the alternative system, with electric lines laid underground, would have been more expensive to build and operate.
End of trams
Trams were more expensive to operate than buses. Maintaining their overhead infrastructure became increasingly costly, particularly as maintenance was deferred during wartime when material shortages pushed up costs.
Gisborne replaced its tram service with buses in 1928. Napier followed suit after the 1931 earthquake. By the end of the 1950s all the tram services in New Zealand had been phased out except for those in Wellington, where the final journey did not take place until May 1964.
Buses became the dominant form of public transport in cities.