Saturday, October 18, 2008

When Trams Came to Avondale

(Image above: Tram 248, 1938 "Streamliner", at MOTAT 2 tram terminus, Western Springs, 14 July 2007. Notes below.)

On the early Saturday afternoon of the first day of February 1932, at 2.15 pm, the first of two special trams completed the inaugural trip along the final stretch of line from Mt Albert to Avondale, the first bearing dignitaries, the second members of the public. Local residents packed what was then Brown Street (now Rosebank Road above Great North Road), the Auckland Municipal Band played the National Anthem and other selections throughout the afternoon on an adjacent vacant lot (possibly close to the site of the WINZ offices today), and a ribbon held across the track by Mrs. P. Richardson and Miss Johnson was cut by the wife of the tramways manager, Mrs. Allum. The Mayor of Mt Albert, Mr W. F. Stillwell, expressed his appreciation to the Auckland Transport Board in extending the trams to Avondale, and Arthur Morrish (editor/publisher of the News in Avondale, and representing the Avondale Development Association) congratulated all on their work. Residents enjoyed rides on the special service that day between Avondale and Mt Albert all afternoon.

The Auckland Transport Board said they aimed to provide a 16-minute service, with 10-minutes during rush hour, and more frequent services as need warranted. The present-day stage boundary at Mt Albert shops comes from that day the trams came finally to Avondale, the section boundary shifting from Ennismore Road, making the journey to the City from Richardson Road to the City three sections instead of two.

The tramline to Avondale was a long time in coming. Nearly 29 years, in fact. What was to be the line reached Kingsland along New North Road by May 1903 (7 months after the introduction of electric trams on the 4’8½” gauge), Morningside by July 1912, Mount Albert by September 1915, and finally Avondale, 1932. It was only after control on the tramways was taken from Auckland City Council and passed onto the Auckland Transport Board in January 1929 that progress toward extending the line to Avondale was made. Up to that time, Avondale was not seen as economically viable to sustain the passenger numbers required to have the line terminate in the shopping centre. However, the tram was soon well-utilised by racegoers and the general public. Later in 1932, the Unity Building was erected in that part of Avondale and, together with the Post Office building from 1938, helped change the focus of the Town Centre itself.

Some further excitement came to Avondale when, one day, the tram failed to stop at the end of the tracks and, with the gradient of Station Hill adding impetus, shot down through the intersection with Great North Road, gouging deep furrows in the road as it went. According to local residents around at the time, the Transport Board put in preventive measures by digging a trench at the end of the line, covered by a wooden board that was designed to give way and therefore impede the forward progress of any future runaway trams.

Right from the start, though, trams were seen by transport planners as a short to medium term solution. In 1932, an electric train system was seen as a viable alternative to maintain connections between the City and the suburbs, as well as “trackless trams” (trolley buses) and diesel buses.

Trams after World War II, though, were doomed for other reasons. They were considered obsolete, a symbol of “old fashioned days” as the 1950s dawned, a part of Edwardian New Zealand that had no place in the modern post-war world. Their track-bound progress through city streets conflicted more and more with the pressing traffic flow needs of a burgeoning number of private motor cars. They were simply too old, and too inflexible, to continue.

For Avondale’s tramline, it was decreed that Friday, January 13 1956, “Black Friday”, would be the day the last tram would leave the bottom of steep Station Hill in the township. A turning circle for trolley buses was built opposite the old Methodist Church (part of the circle can still be seen, as a carpark). More than 5500 circulars were distributed by the Transport Board advising residents of the new bus service that was to replace the trams, along with new signs on the route. The greatest concern at the time concerning a smooth transition was that there was a race meeting on at Avondale that weekend. However, no problems were reported, with buses handling all the race traffic.

The last tram to run to Avondale from the City left at 11.30 pm, while a crowd waited in Avondale for its arrival and ultimate departure. Compared with the celebrations back in 1932, the farewell in 1956 was to an old example of the dwindling fleet. “We are sending an old tram because we would not like a newer one to be smashed about,” said a Transport Board spokesman. “In the past, quite a bit of damage has been done by over-enthusiastic crowds.”

And so, in the early hours of 14 January 1956, Avondale’s last tram left Rosebank Road, heading back up the route that had taken three decades to complete, and only three decades on which trams would run, disappearing into history. On December 29 that year, the last tram left Onehunga, and an era was at an end.

(Notes on the 248 "Streamliner" image above: Last type of Auckland tram, built by the Auckland Transport Board at the Manukau Road Workshops. No 248 was restored and painted the 1938 livery by MOTAT in 1980. Continues to run in regular museum service. Source: MOTAT brochure on trams and tramway equipment in their collection.)

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