Flashback: SPER in the 80’s

The 1980’s were a time of massive transition for SPER; growing from a small local museum operating out of a single shed on the edge of the Royal National Park, to a large world class institution opposite the Illawarra Railway Line that would eventually become the largest tramway museum in the Southern Hemisphere. And all through the hard work and effort of the society’s volunteer workforce, with minor government assistance. Construction on the museum’s current site began in 1979, and opened to the general public on the 19th March 1988. During those intervening years, there were several key moments in the museum’s history that are worth highlighting on this site. Many of these were filmed by members and friends of the museum, and have since been digitised and available to view on YouTube. Below is a collection of some of these videos, displaying the progress of the museum throughout the decade; whether it be the transition over to the new site, the acquisition of new trams, or the operations of the old site in its final years. (Note: All videos have been shared with express permission from the original uploaders and appropriate credit is provided.)

1982 – Movement of trams to the new site

The first half of what would become the museum’s current display hall and running shed, began construction in 1980, with most work taking a year to complete. Once the building was ready for occupation, the Board adopted a policy which stated that whenever a tram would be moved off the old site for whatever reason, it would not return. Rather, it would be moved straight to the new site shed to allow for an easier transition between sites. The first tram to occupy the new shed was then recently acquired Ballast Motor 42s, still in its previous form as railway overhead car L707. The next two cars to follow would be K 1296 and O 1111, after both were involved in events surrounding the Harbour Bridge anniversary and Royal Easter Show respectively. Also stored at the new site were the museum’s collection of buses, due to limited space at the old site. Then on the 20th November 1982, the first mass movement of cars to the new site would be undertaken, with the transfer of 5 single truck cars in the museum’s collection plus Freight Car 24s. A video made by Richard Youl, using footage given to him a while ago, shows some of the transfers which took place on the day. This can be viewed below.

Video by Richard Youl

1984 – Launch of Melbourne W2 392 in museum service

In 1983, the task was underway of acquiring a classic Melbourne W2 class tram for the museum’s collection. The end result was the selection of No. 392 for preservation at Loftus. The car arrived at the old site in early 1984 and would spend the rest of the year being overhauled and returned to the appearance it had during the 1960’s. Works would be completed just before Christmas and the tram was launched into traffic on 2nd December 1984. It was also the star attraction at the museum’s annual Member’s Day a week later, along with other cars such as Essanee rail grinder No. 3 and Lp 154, which was undergoing a repaint at the time. Additionally, a trip to the new site was also in order for members and their families during the day. Both 392’s launch and the subsequent Member’s Day were filmed by Richard Youl, who’s video of these events is available to view here:

Video by Richard Youl

It should be noted that W2 392 is no longer part of the museum’s collection; having been overhauled and de-accessioned a while ago for a second life overseas. The Melbourne W2 class trams are now represented at Loftus by 392’s older sister No. 249, which has recently finished a repaint into its original MMTB Green and Cream colours. A page documenting 249’s repaint can be viewed here.

1985/86 – 20 Years of tram operations at SPER and special events hirings

By early 1985, the museum had been operating heritage trams to the public for exactly 20 years (the opening day of which can be seen here). To celebrate the occasion, a special event day was held at the National Park site on 16th March 1985, with visitors having tram rides on Sydney cars N 728, P 1497, R 1740, R1 1979, Brisbane cars 180, 295 and 548, and Melbourne car W2 392. Also out during the day was Sydney Lp 154 – still undergoing a repaint – as well as Sydney overhead car 99u. Richard Youl was there to film the day’s events and has since uploaded it to his YouTube channel as part of a new video highlighting a series of special events the museum held in the mid-80’s. Also included is footage of K 1296 and O 1111 having test runs at the current museum site in early 1986, a visit by replica Melbourne cable grip car 593; which operated at both the old and new sites in May 1986, as well as some behind the scenes footage from when the museum was hired out for two major film/tv shootings during this period. The first bit of such footage was filmed by Bill Parkinson at the old site in 1985, which was hired by the producers of the Australian film “For Love Alone”, to recreate various scenes of Sydney in the 1930’s. Whilst the second bit of BTS footage was filmed by Richard himself at the new site, which was hired to shoot scenes for the Australian miniseries “The Harp in the South” in 1986, where the filmmakers dressed it up to look like Surry Hills in 1948. Of course the museum continues to be used for film shoots to this day, most notably having been used to film scenes for the 2018 Australian film “Ladies in Black” (which unlike the 80’s productions that had props and backdrops made, used Computer Generated Imagery to recreate the streets of late 1950’s Sydney. Trams, cars, actors and the RWSQ waiting shed were all real however). The video of all the aforementioned events, can be viewed underneath.

Video by Richard Youl

1986 – 25th Anniversary of the Last Sydney Tram Event

On Saturday the 22nd February 1986, the museum held a public event commemorating 25 years since the original Sydney tramway system closed. This would essentially be the last major event to be held at the old site, with multiple trips during the day run exclusively by the Sydney trams still at the National Park depot. These trams were N 728, P 1497, Lp 154, R 1740, and R1 1979. A big drawcard during this event, was the opportunity for the public to visit the new site for the first time. Vintage shuttle buses took visitors between the old and new sites throughout the day, with patrons given a good look at the work in progress. Short trips were also operated along the current Lakewood Park track by K 1296. Much of the day’s events were filmed on home video by Gregory Wilson, who digitised and uploaded it to YouTube some years ago. He has allowed this video to be shared here, and his permission is much appreciated.

(SIDE-NOTE: Of notable interest in Greg’s video, are a selection of shots of museum trams which were still unrestored at the time, that are now either operational or at least restored to static condition. These are trams such as O 957, Op 1089, Weed Burner 144s, R1 1971, the Balmain Counterweight Dummy, Freight Car 24s and Ballast Motor 42s (still in L707 form). Also seen briefly is post-war R1 2044, now currently in use as the museum’s main traffic office.)

Video by Gregory Wilson

1987 – Arrival of San Francisco PCC Streetcar 1014 to Sydney

1987 was a significant year for the museum, with the arrival of its newest and most technologically advanced car at the time: San Francisco Double-Ended PCC “Torpedo” Streetcar No. 1014. It’s addition to the collection proved to be a major turning point: it allowed the museum to demonstrate to the greater Sydney public that tramcar development had not stopped with the R1 class cars, and that tram designs could be of a more modern and streamlined appearance than something along the likes of the Edwardian-era O class trams. It also set a precedent for the museum to eventually acquire several more trams of international origin, as well as some select examples of modern day Australian trams of even greater technological advancement than the PCC design; these trams being Melbourne Z2 111 and Sydney Variotram 2107 respectively.

The history behind the museum receiving 1014 is interesting in and of itself. When San Francisco retired its PCCs in 1982, advocates began to campaign for their retention and re-use as heritage vehicles, running in conjunction with then modern day Light Rail vehicles. Their success prevented the scrapping of the PCCs, and would eventually result in the opening of the current F Line Heritage Service in 1995. But before all this there were discussions among members of SPER, about the dream of having a double-ended PCC at Loftus, in some ways to demonstrate what Sydney might’ve had, had the original system been retained and modernised. This resulted in current STM chairman and then treasurer, Howard Clark, to enquire about the potential of a PCC being donated to the museum whilst on a business trip in San Francisco. The result was that an agreement was reached, where a PCC streetcar would be made available to Loftus on a permanent loan basis, in the form of a Sister City Bicentennial gift to Sydney. The car chosen would of course be 1014. In March 1987, the museum’s workshop manager Bill Parkinson, travelled with Howard to San Francisco to examine the car, and was given a run through on how to restore and maintain it once it arrived in Sydney. When initial repair works were completed, 1014 was shipped to Sydney and arrived at Port Botany on the 7th June 1987. After staying overnight at Port Botany bus depot, it was unloaded at the new Loftus site the next day, with restoration on the car taking two years to complete, eventually entering museum service in 1989.

Whilst in San Francisco, Bill took the time to film footage of 1014 doing test runs in the yard, and also filmed its arrival in Sydney. This footage has been edited into a YouTube video by Richard Youl, which can be viewed underneath. Also included is news footage of 1014’s delivery at Port Botany, as well as more recent video of the car filmed by museum member Michael Hatton, for a modern day comparison.

Video by Richard Youl

1988 – The last day of the old site and the official opening of the new site

After a good 8 years of progress, with multiple highlights in between, it all came to a peak for the museum in March 1988, with the closure of the original National Park site, and the opening of the current Loftus site. The last day of National Park operations occurred on the 13th March 1988. R1 1979 did the honours as the last tram to run services at the site, and at the end of the day was driven into the old depot; bringing 23 years of operation in the Royal National Park to a close. After a six week rush to finish off the new site to a standard ready for passenger operations, the opening finally came on the 19th March 1988. A ceremony was held with then Federal Member for Hughes Robert Tickner in attendance, and a convoy consisting of F 393 (then recently overhauled), O 1111, P 1497 and R 1740 took passengers between Loftus and Sutherland and return. This continued until 5:00pm upon which the gates officially closed to the public. A YouTube video provided by Richard Youl, documents both the closure of the old site and the opening of the new site. This can be viewed below.

More works would continue after the offical opening of course (trams still at the National Park for example would continue to be moved to the new site as seen here), but it was from this moment that the South Pacific Electric Railway would begin a new life of operations at the current site and with over 32 years of progress, the society continues to go strong to this day and hopefully well into the future. And with any luck, the number of highlights as seen throughout the 80’s will once again be replicated soon.