How the Paddington Tram Depot fire in 1962 sparked Brisbane’s transport revolution

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On a September evening in Brisbane, 60 years ago, a fire that would spell the end of the city’s tram network swept through the Paddington tram depot.

The huge depot was high above the city on the side of a hill on La Trobe Terrace, its tall wooden supports dwarfing the houses on either side.

Inside, 65 trams – 20% of the city’s entire tram fleet – were parked.

On September 28, 1962, the 47-year-old wood and steel depot quickly burst into flames from end to end, fueled by oil and grease stored beneath the building, and smoldered for days.

The depot shown under construction in 1915.(Provided: Brisbane City Council Archives)

The trams burned to ash, crashing from the heights of the depot to the ground below.

The Canberra Times reported that the depot’s only two workers managed to extricate the three surviving trams and salvage cash before the searing heat took over.

A wreck of wood and metal with a worker watching the fire scene
Brisbane City Council built eight new trams from the wreckage.(Provided: Brisbane City Council Archives)

“Five fire engines and four powerful pumps were used to battle the blaze, but lack of water pressure initially hampered firefighters,” The Times reported.

“Thousands of people blocked the streets and viewpoints around the depot and extra police had to be called in to check them.”

The cause of the fire was never established, but it became a turning point for the city’s beloved streetcar network.

Trams burn in a wooden building above a house
Burning trams fell through the floor of the building while others smoldered in the rubble.(Provided: Brisbane City Council Archives)

By the end of the night, only three trams had been saved, costing Brisbane City Council around £500,000, or nearly $16 million in today’s dollars.

The loss of 65 trams from the municipal fleet of 375 has strained the public transport network.

In desperation, the council sent bus drivers to Sydney to collect 15 borrowed buses to fill the gaps.

The heritage of the tramway

At the time of the fire, Brisbane’s nearly 80-year-old trams had gone through several iterations, from wooden horse-drawn trams to fully electric open-door trams.

The city’s streetcar network grew rapidly in the 1920s and 30s until nearly 200 kilometers of tracks encased in concrete stretched through the suburbs.

A black and white photo of people boarding a tram in Brisbane
Brisbane’s tram network reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s.(Provided: State Library of Queensland)

Trams were popular in the summer, with their original open design keeping passengers cool and their four doors allowing them to get in and out quickly.

Peak passenger numbers tipped 148 million trips in 1946 before competition from faster buses, the rise of private cars and suburban shopping malls cutting trips to the CBD meant their role as the main mode of transport from Brisbane has come to an end.

The Paddington fire has reignited debate over their future, but Brisbane Tramway Museum vice-president Peter Hyde said the trams will “soldier” for another seven years after the fire.

A tram coming out of Victoria Bridge in Brisbane
A tram exiting Victoria Bridge in Brisbane, circa 1965, during the last years of tram operation.(Provided: State Library of Queensland)

The council salvaged enough items from the fire to help build eight new trams to replace some of those lost.

“Phoenix” trams were painted pale blue and featured the logo of the mythical bird, running until the tram closed in 1969.

Mr Hyde said one of the salvaged trams was still in use at the Tramway Museum, Brisbane’s last tram legacy.

A love of cars

In 1962 The Canberra Times reported the cost of replacing the 65 burnt-out trams and Paddington depot was estimated at £2 million, or $63 million in today’s dollars.

A tram traveling along Queen Street, Brisbane
A tram traveling along Queen Street, Brisbane.(Provided: State Library of Queensland)

“Brisbane tram passengers are having the dubious pleasure of seeing buses bound for neighboring suburbs pass the trams to provide faster service,” the Canberra Times correspondent reported weeks later.

The reporter added that while Sydney and Adelaide had already switched to buses, Brisbane was clinging to “an inordinate love of trams”.

By the time Clem Jones became Lord Mayor of Brisbane in 1961, political favor had shifted from slow-moving electric trams to faster, more modern buses.

Aftermath of the Paddington Tram Depot fire
The aftermath of the Paddington Tram Depot fire.(Provided: Brisbane City Council)

And Brisbane’s love of trams was not enough to save them, as Mr Jones commissioned a city-wide transport study from US traffic engineering firm Wilbur Smith and Associates.

The Wilber Smith Report recommended that buses replace trams, laid the foundations for the Riverside Expressway and Brisbane’s motorway network, and led to decades of car-centric planning.

Streetcars traveling down Stanley Street towards Mount Coot-tha in the late 1960s.
Streetcars traveling down Stanley Street towards Mount Coot-tha in the late 1960s.(Provided: Brisbane City Council Archives)

“The biggest contributing factor, of course, was Clem Jones … who was a very passionate advocate for motor vehicles and the ability to drive from your home to your office,” Mr Hyde said.

Mr Jones reportedly said the council was ‘trying to get rid of public transport’ as the city shifted its focus to motor cars. The council’s decision to scrap the trams was unpopular with the community, but the council held firm.

And on August 13, 1969, the Canberra Times reported the end of Brisbane’s trams.

“Late tomorrow evening Brisbane’s last tram will make its final journey,” The Times reported.

“It will roll off the street and slide until it comes to a stop in a drop yard, and by Monday morning an era will be over.”

The Brisbane Tram Museum will hold a gala day on Saturday 24 September, marking the 60th anniversary of the Paddington depot fire.

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