Public transport in the NSW Capital --
when (and why) did it start?

Valley Heights Rail Museum 24 Aug 2021

In the late 1870s, Sydney's public transport system was created from the ground up. Horse drawn trams had been introduced in 1861 but proved unpopular especially with other road users, and were withdrawn after only five years. It would be another 12 years before tram rails were again laid in Sydney streets. Anticipating high demand for efficient movement of passengers from 'Redfern' station (the 'heavy' rail line terminus was then located between the current Redfern and Central stations) to the International Exhibition in the Botanical Gardens, the State Government fast tracked a tram line that opened in September 1879. 

The key innovation was the delivery of steam trams, mostly built by the famous Baldwin Locomotive Works in Pennsylvania and shipped by steamship to Sydney. Local manufacturers added their contribution to the steady stream of imported tram motors, assembling the final 22 from the ground up. NSW State heritage listed Steam Tram 103A was one of the latter, hitting the streets of Sydney on 12 September 1891. 

Steam tram 103A at Arncliffe in 1926 (image from the collection of Arthur Dunstan)

Steam tram 103A at Arncliffe in 1926 (image from the collection of Arthur Dunstan) 

103A is a lucky survivor. It was sold to Sydney Ferries Ltd after withdrawal from government service in 1937 and then to CSR (Colonial Sugar Refining - Rhodes) in 1943, finally ending its industrial life at Commonwealth Engineering (COMENG) at Clyde in 1953. 

That year signified a major change in direction for the fortunes of 103A. The tram motor was gifted to the newly formed Steam Tram and Railway Preservation Society (STARPS) and rebuilt over the next few years in a Homebush suburban back yard! Once that huge task was completed, 103A was transferred to the newly established steam tram museum in Parramatta Park where it regularly hauled a tramcar often full of excited passengers over the next 30 or so years. A 1988 Bicentenary grant provided funds to the Society to overhaul 103A, including installation of a replacement boiler, at the then Rail Transport Museum (RTM) facility at Thirlmere. 

On refurbishment, 103A returned to Parramatta Park in 1991 and resumed revenue service at Parramatta until a fire in ’93 resulted in substantial damage and a return to Thirlmere for another major rebuild from the ground up. In the last months of the 20th century, the phoenix-like tram motor arrived at the Valley Heights Locomotive Depot Heritage Museum in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. STARPS had relocated to that site some years earlier and 103A duly took its place as an integral part of the visitor experience at the Museum. Since September 2005, this rare exhibit has been earning its keep, chugging to and fro on its 2.2 km journey, bringing to life a significant slice of Sydney’s history. 

As a 130th birthday is a rare event, Sunday 12 September 2021 was planned to be a celebration of this important milestone in Sydney’s public transport history. As part of History Week, members of the public had been invited to share in some special and one-off experiences: view rare photographs and memorabilia; share the excitement, including a ride in historic tramcar 93B, led by Steam Tram 103A; enjoy birthday cake; hear short speeches by notable guests and much more. Unfortunately this event has been postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions and a new date has not yet been announced.

Members of the public and followers of History Council NSW are welcome to keep up to date at or via this website where you can also help mark this special occasion. 

Be sure to watch the short video (below) of Sydney Steam Tram 103A in action at Valley Heights Rail Museum and remember to wish 103A “Happy Birthday!”.