Adelaide’s Public Transport Book

A new book by Wakefield Press

Tom Wilson, with co-authors John Radcliffe and the late Christopher Steele
Published with assistance from the History Trust of South Australia
An electronic book on a USB stick
ISBN 978 1 74305 885 5 $59.95

The beautiful city of Adelaide, capital of South Australia, with a population approaching 1.4 million spread
over an area about 90 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide, has a fascinating public transport history,
with many similarities to, but also many differences from, other cities of a similar size. Despite being well
planned in 1836 by surveyor Colonel William Light with many straight, wide roads, its good road network
has presented many challenges for public transport in that it is very easy to drive a car anywhere during
all but the relatively short peak periods.

Horse-drawn cabs and horse buses commenced quite early and continued until about 1920. The first
railway opened in 1856. The suburban rail system operated by the South Australian Railways (SAR) was
largely complete by 1915, with 4 main lines, with some branches and two short railways to Glenelg,
radiating from the city.

Commencing in 1878, Adelaide developed what became Australia’s largest horse tramway network, horse
power being suitable because most of Adelaide is built on a flat plain. By 1907 there were 17 suburban
horse tram routes, plus 3 in outer suburban locations.

From 1909, most of the horse tramways were electrified by the Municipal Tramways Trust (MTT).
The first privately owned motor buses began to appear from 1904, and after the end of World War I, many ex-servicemen purchased truck chasses, built bus bodies on them with various levels of sophistication and proceeded to run them in opposition to the railways and tramways until the government bought them out in 1928. Some buses were later sold back to private operators.

By the early 1930s there were about 22 suburban electric tram routes plus 4 at Port Adelaide. In the late
1920s the authorities could see that electric trains in the form of ‘interurban’ type tramways (these days
known as ‘light rail’) might be better serving the suburbs than would the steam trains, and as a result one
railway – that to Glenelg, was converted to light rail.

The MTT commenced operating a motor bus fleet in 1925, and in 1932 the MTT experimented with the
first electric trolley bus in Australia. From 1937, it progressively developed Australia’s largest trolley bus
network with 7 routes by 1953, some replacing trams.

But from the early 1950s, the MTT deficit increased, due to increasing costs and loss of patronage
to private motor cars and the impact of reduced maintenance during the war years. Reducing the
deficit became, for the MTT, an all-consuming aim, becoming more important than efforts to prevent
patronage losses. The remaining electric tramways, with the exception of the ‘inter-urban’ light rail line
to Glenelg, were replaced by diesel buses by 1958. The SAR was going through a similar transition, with
the replacement of steam and a small number of older railcar services by modern diesel railcars.

In the 1960s and ’70s the suburban rail system was expanded, at the same time as some country railways
and some suburban ‘industrial’ lines were being discontinued.

The mid 1970s saw a second takeover of private buses by the government, followed by the formation of
the State Transport Authority (STA) which unified the public transport network.

In the late 1970s pressure was increasing to provide some kind of higher speed public transport into the
developing north-eastern suburbs which lacked a rail line. By 1979 a light rail line was proposed but a
change of government resulted in the development of the very successful Adelaide O-Bahn, opened in
stages in 1986 and 1989. This was the first dedicated busway established in Australia, and for some years
was the longest and fastest guided busway in the world.

Railway electrification was first proposed in 1904 but not implemented until 2014, as the new diesel
railcars selected in the 1950–1990 period had been relatively efficient. Adelaide gained the dubious
honour of being the last mainland Australian capital to electrify its railways, and at the time of writing
had only partially implemented that electrification.

In 1994 the STA was replaced by the Passenger Transport Board (PTB) to undertake the progressive
competitive tendering of public transport operation. By 2000 all bus services were privately operated,
and by 2020 the remaining tram services were also privately operated, with proposals for the private
operation of the trains.

In 2006 the remaining tramline – the light rail line – was modernised, commencing the second generation
tramway system, with some extensions in 2007, 2010 and 2018.

At the end of 2018, the Adelaide public transport system, Adelaide Metro, was operating about 1040
buses, 136 railcars, and 24 trams, a total of 1200 vehicles. In 2017–18, there were 62 million passenger
journeys, or 75 million boardings, on the Adelaide Metro public transport network.

What is included in the book:
In summary, the work is divided as follows:
Part 1: General History – 60 chapters, approximately chronological.
Part 2: Routes and Services, most treated in ‘corridors’, with 36 chapters commencing with the railways
and Glenelg tram, followed by radial and associated tram and bus routes in a clockwise fashion around
the city, then Inner Cross Suburban routes, then Special Events services, and a timeline of service
changes. These chapters have maps which show the historical development of the routes in the chapter.
Part 3: The Fleet and Depots – 5 chapters.
Part 4: Miscellaneous matters, including fares and ticketing, statistics, administration, and museums and
historical societies – 4 chapters.
Part 5: Conclusion – Lessons learnt
Appendices: Authors’ biographies; Glossary; References & Abbreviations

Wakefield Press is a supporter of the Historical Society and members can receive a discount when purchasing. They often have book sales at Society meetings or you can contact them direct at their Mile End location or their website: