The Great Triumph that Saved a Public Asset

Written by RAHU member Matt Bolin

Whilst you may be curious of the relevance my next article has toward housing, the nucleus that the Renters And Housing Union stands for. The answer to that question lies within the very achievement of this campaign and demonstration of what can be achieved by people power who care for a public asset enough to demand it be preserved against all odds.  

This scenario regarding the future of Melbourne/Victoria’s public transport train and tram services in the 1970s. The Brande and Leonie reports recommending much of it be culled replaced with buses, trucks and an unexpected white knight in premier Rupert Hamer with the liberal party. It’s hard to imagine the trains and tramway network (something Melbourne is now globally famous for) we take for granted was on the cusp of extinction via stealth 5 decades ago. With the rise in popularity of motor transport, decades of neglect and decline of our trains and trams by successive governments in Victoria plus the overall state of the carriages themselves being dilapidated; it was generally viewed this form of transport was no longer desired or viable. Private transportation was considered the more economically efficient future. This achievement to turn the future in the favour of public transportation would not have been possible without sheer tenacity and passion from bureaucrats like Alan Reiher, train/tram enthusiasts, union solidarity, train/tram workers and most importantly everyday people like you who are reading my article finding solidarity that were prepared to make a stand against the status quo of the day and say this is our public transport, don’t you take it from us!  

To understand how this situation occurred in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s you need to look at the trajectory Australia took in our transportation evolution prior. Starting from the 19th Century up until 1900’s, Australia’s domestic means of transportation consisted of three variations. The first being horse and cart which was popular of the day and now limited to a mere novelty experience in Victoria in Melbourne’s CBD and historical theme parks like Sovereign hill. The second cable trams, initially every state capital city had an extensive tram network also in some regional centres too like Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo. Then lastly steam train locomotives. Initially most were imported from Britain before domestic manufacturing occurred.   

All three methods co-existed quite well together in this period, most of our current railway lines and tramlines were built during this period and grandiose stations like Flinders Street in Melbourne, Central station in Sydney and Central station in Brisbane etc. Then this balance of power was disrupted with Henry Ford in America’s ability to mass produce motor cars with enough horsepower to outpace a literal horse and the comfort of transportation for yourself without sharing the ride. It wouldn’t be long before this trend would inevitably come to Australia. With the expansion of refined crude oil innovation Ford would setup the first automotive factory in Australia based in Geelong, Victoria which produced cars all the way up until 2016. Its departure is the courtesy of runaway neoliberalist policies along with declines in sales. This invention spelt the end of the horse and cart. The excitement of our population owning their own car soon followed concern within the railway and tramway industry regarding its future.  

In 1937 the spirit of progress was launched, A new model of train raising the luxury standard of long-distance railway in Australia beyond what its predecessors had been able to achieve thus enabling it to modernise to a contemporary image.  World War 2 shortly followed and any further efforts to enhance the railway experience were muted due to all resources being diverted to the war effort. After the second world war Investment into upgrading many of our lines and train/tram technology declined. Patronage dropped significantly which resulted in numerous state governments announcing closure of branch lines and in the case of every state except Victoria and South Australia ceased operation of tramways altogether. Holden, Toyota, Volkswagen and Chrysler setup manufacturing plants in Australia, Ford built more plants in places like Broadmeadows, Eagle Farm QLD and Homebush Sydney. Heavy vehicle Manufacturing of trucks and buses commenced too. These automotive industries should not be seen as a great mistake of history though; Holden for example for its whole existence was the engine that ignited a national identity, the spirit of the nation and proudness of Australian industrialisation. Holden showed us what we are made of and what our elbow grease is capable of.  

Private transportation enabled more nimble movement of people that trains and trams could simply not achieve. However, all these factors gave governments an opportunistic advantage to under fund, neglect and close off lines via stealth eventually making the justified case we can’t afford to run them, and they are beyond repair.  

Henry Bolte was elected premier of Victoria in 1955 from the Liberal Party. A country born man who marketed himself as the everyday leader for the worker from humble beginnings. As a politician he was also very shrewd, from 1955 onwards whilst adhering to some of findings of report Operation Phoenix 1950, he significantly reduced ordering new rolling stock and put an indefinite hold on ratifying planned extensions of existing train/ tram lines into the suburbs. This would mark a lacklustre attitude and reputation for railway maintenance and the overall experience for commuters with higher ticket fees.  

Steam Train locomotives were still commonplace on our train lines until the early 1970’s. To his credit the only significant contribution to our train network in his time was the approval of the city loop despite critics claiming it was a waste of money and not needed (like the suburban rail loop today). It opened in 1981. Favouring private methods of transportation, Bolte’s government set the scene for what would happen next.  

The 1970’s arrived, Henry Bolte resigned, somewhat more progressive Rupert Hamer from the inner suburb of Kew replaced him as premier. Our train network was still using carriages from the 1880’s, Coaches still had old wooden structures, no standardised air conditioning and train schedules to regional Victoria were very sporadic and unreliable. The administrator of our railway operations Victorian Railways commissioners (later restructured and renamed VicRail) was heavily in debt.  

Two massive reports were put forward, the first being the Bland report in 1972. The recommendations were closing unprofitable branch lines, opening railways up to competition with motor transport on a market basis, introducing contract road buses and rationalisation of freight operations, with the creation of regional freight centers. This was the first bullet to Trains/Trams in Victoria. The second would prove to be the trigger for social resistance and shift the dynamics toward train/tram favor again.   

The Leonie report in 1980 headed by Murray Leonie, a retired GM and BHP executive accompanied by his secretary a member of the country roads board, was undertaken to assess the viability of Victoria’s railway/tram network and its operations. Its findings were quite unfavourable to the network. Despite the immense change in demand for transport methods in the 20th Century the system is still run by methods which prevailed in the 19th Century. It insisted on large de regulation of transport markets, it noted the financial losses made by the Victorian rails plus increased patronage of Car/Bus usage. It deemed it would be unviable to upgrade the infrastructure and technology of our existing railway setup and unable to compete with the car, it recommended abolishing all regional railway lines except for Melbourne to Geelong and be replaced with buses (even some metropolitan lines). Along with the dismantling of Melbourne’s extensive tram network, increase prices in tickets and cease weekend and night-time train travel to replace it with taxis.  The report also advocated for more freeways, duplicating freeways and more bypasses. Rupert Hamer and the minister for transport Rob Maclellan initially accepted these findings and were supportive of implementation.   

The report immediately drew strong opposition from public transport users and workers within the industry who relied on trains to commute and earn a living. Through passionate articulate articles within union magazines, media platforms and word of mouth explaining the report, what it overlooked (including the report being based purely on a financial case and not the effects it would have on society with the long term financial downsides subsequently plus congestion), and how it is going to affect you personally if you let it happen, civil servants’ along with union lobbyist groups engaged in public protests and strikes during the last few months of 1980. To Rupert Hamers’ surprise at the extent of love and devotion to this means of transportation he responded like any competent politician should when people make a stand. He and his government came up with a way to make trains and trams viable again in the modern era. He set up a new reform called the new deal for country passengers in 1981, A 115-million-dollar commitment retained our tram lines (Hamer previously expanded them into the eastern suburbs in 1978). The new deal also resulted in government investing in new train carriages, finally retired dated century old railway technology and replaced them with new train technology,  also rebuilding some old carriage stock, further electrification of networks including regional lines, completely new timetables for country services and administrational reform which included appointing rail enthusiast Alan Reiher (who lobbied hard for preservation) as chairman of the Victorian Railways board (Vic rail) to oversee this exciting new era. Labor leader John Cain Jr once elected in 1982 also along with his government expanded on this railway revolution from the foundation of the new deal.  Alan Reiher was elected director general of transport of Victoria in 1986.  

Although several low usage regional branch lines were still closed and the railway/tram system in Victoria was privatised a decade later under Jeff Kennett, this new deal was significant in that it performed the impossible task of saving the life of a means of transport serving the public on its death bed, systematically poisoned by vested interests in private transportation and lack of political interest, It proved this public service a powerful force to be reckoned with by sheer people power of everyday Victorians with selfless affection for something bigger then themselves. Today our public transport network in Melbourne is constantly expanding, testing new frontiers, being manufactured in Victoria (I bet many of you are not aware we make trains/trams in Dandenong and Ballarat for us and other states). Our trams have become a must see not just for tourism but also something which shapes the uniqueness of Melbourne culture. Sydney has had to resurrect most of their former tram lines paved over in the inner city and build new ones to accommodate for their DeFacto new tram scheme the light rail, a homage to their growing population and congestion. Gold Coast, Canberra and Newcastle have invested in light rail too. Whilst our private transport industry has fallen on its own sword in many ways, by closing virtually all automotive manufacturing in Australia, made possible by the actions of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government decision to cease subsidies to Holden, Toyota and Ford adhering to the neoliberal philosophy. Petrol costs have risen and will potentially soar higher as oil supplies begin to peak then deplete. Due to neoliberalism, we have closed all but a couple of oil refineries, capable of only producing around 10% of the nation’s petroleum needs. Rising costs in insurance and registration contributors too.  With the rise in geopolitical tensions and heavily reliance on importing, these costs have potential to escalate further for Australia.  

To top it all off a painfully slow approach to transitioning to EV usage including producing local stock in Australia thus enabling the continuation of private transportation as the alternative alongside trains/trams for our population. Along with the whole renewable energy innovation and stagnation in Australia from our leaders. 

The bigger message to this article I am trying to articulate in relation to housing and the Renters And Housing Union itself is that like trains/trams in that period, public housing is under attack and systematically being poisoned by vested interests in our private market and lack of political will to remedy the issue. We may be in a more cynical age now riddled in determinism and a hunger to fulfill self-interest over a bigger cause. It is still up to you though to determine the future of Australia. It is up to everybody to find solidarity and advocate for something needed, you can still make a difference if you try, you can still convince the government your public asset has a future if you want it to. Times and attitudes change but people’s power as the fuel to shape the trajectory forward to bring about change doesn’t. If you fancy a future with only private housing markets in Victoria/Australia, then do nothing and accept what may come as a result. If you feel Victoria and Australia for that matter needs adequate public housing and a firmer commitment from government then shake a leg and stand up for it.   


Gazette Magazine Official organ of the Australian railways Victorian branch August 1981 and 1982.  

Victorian Transport Study Journal Vic Rail Financial system 1980 

Australian federated union of locomotive enginemen Victorian division- The Lonie Report in brief.  

Habitat Australia- Lonie report and its aftermath.