The remarkable PCC tramcar: why Melbourne missed out

The development and construction of the PCC trolley car (or to use the Australian idiom, the PCC tramcar) in the 1930s was a quantum leap forward in urban electric tramcar design. The innovations introduced with this design were so remarkable that there was no substantial advance on the PCC technology until the introduction of solid state DC control systems over thirty years later.

The PCC trolley design was developed under the aegis of the Electric Railway Presidents’ Conference Committee (ERPCC), a body formed in the United States of America in late 1929 by a number of major electric transit companies, car builders and equipment manufacturers. The ERPCC was charged with the specific remit of saving the electric trolley business from extinction from the twin challenges of the private motor car and the motor omnibus.

A previous attempt to answer this challenge a decade earlier was through the Birney lightweight streetcar. However, the Spartan design and low operating costs of the Birney had failed to stem the flow of public transit passengers to the upholstered comfort and convenience of private cars and buses. The rapid development of internal combustion technology through the 1920s also meant that streetcars were being out-performed by both motor cars and buses, and were increasingly being seen as slow and obsolete, and an impediment to smoothly flowing traffic.

The major objective of the ERPCC was to develop a standardised trolley car design capable of mass-production that would be more comfortable and have higher performance capabilities in ride, acceleration and braking than the best in contemporary motor vehicle design. It took five years before the first PCC trolley car was delivered to Pittsburgh Railways Company as its number 100 in June 1936.

San Francisco Muni single-ended PCC car 1050, 2007. Photograph copyright BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons San Francisco Muni single-ended PCC car 1050 on Market Street, 25 Oct 2007. This streetcar was originally built for service in Philadelphia between 1948 and 1989, but now serves on the heritage F line in San Francisco.
Photograph © BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons.

While the PCC trolley car did not introduce any groundbreaking new technologies, it was a brilliant synthesis of state-of-the-art streetcar design of the era. In every aspect of its design it met or exceeded expectations. Some of the features of the PCC car included:

  • all metal frame and construction to reduce car weight
  • resilient wheels with rubber sandwiches supporting the steel tyres, providing a smoother ride
  • reduction in unsprung weight by mounting traction motors in truck frames rather than supported by axles, providing a smoother ride and enhanced braking capability
  • use of hypoid gears in drive trains to reduce noise
  • introduction of new automatic control systems with ninety-nine steps in acceleration, providing smoother and more rapid acceleration – note that contemporary systems in Melbourne used eight acceleration steps
  • fully upholstered seats, and introduction of forced air heating and cooling systems, providing enhanced passenger comfort
  • the body design followed the latest fashion in the Streamline Moderne school of industrial design, emphasising to passengers that these trolley cars were the ultimate in urban street transport.

The PCC trolley car could out-accelerate and out-brake almost all contemporary motor traffic, all performed with an apparent minimum of effort. Almost five thousand of these trolley cars were constructed for use in the United States between 1936 and 1952, and many thousands more were constructed post-war by European manufacturers such as CKD Tatra (Czechoslovakia), Konstal (Poland), Fiat (Italy), and La Brugeoise et Nivelles (Belgium). CKD Tatra alone built 13,991 examples of PCC tramcars.

If the PCC design was so good, why then did the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board persist with the standard W class design, which was at least twenty years older in basic conception?

The early 1930s when the PCC trolley was being designed coincided with the depth of the Great Depression. The M&MTB had made a huge investment in Preston Workshops during the previous decade to support the conversion of the cable tram system to electric traction. The equipment installed in Preston Workshops was premised around building and maintenance of tramcars of classical design in a mix of timber and steel. As a result, the M&MTB was committed to tramcar construction using classical techniques until it could obtain finance to replace much of its almost new manufacturing equipment.

Construction of new tramcars in Melbourne almost halted during this period, with much use being made of recycled components from scrapped tramcars in what little new construction was undertaken, mainly to the W3, W4 and CW5 designs. These designs switched to all steel frames from the mixed timber and steel frames of the W2 class, although there was still a large amount of timber construction in the tramcars.

Nonetheless M&MTB engineers had much interest in the work being carried out under the auspices of the ERPCC during the design process, although they were not in a position to benefit from it.

In 1938, Chairman H.H. Bell went on an overseas fact-finding tour, and was so impressed by the PCC trolley cars he observed in the United States that the M&MTB purchased a licence to import and manufacture tramcars to the PCC design in Australia, initially proposing to import a standard ‘double-ended’ PCC tramcar from the United States for evaluation. The onset of the Second World War the following year prevented this plan from eventuating.

Despite this, the PCC design did influence the introduction of more advanced remote control systems in the new SW6 class trams, first delivered in 1939. These controllers had fourteen acceleration steps rather than the traditional eight, providing smoother acceleration, but not to the same extent as the superb PCC controllers. The interior was also influenced by the PCC design, the SW6 class cars being known as ‘luxury’ cars for the upholstered seating and air-operated doors.

By 1943 it was clear that the replacement of the Bourke Street cable trams by buses had been a failure, and plans were drawn up to replace the buses with electric trams – with these to be PCC tramcars.

With the end of the Second World War, the M&MTB was keen to press forward with its post-war plans. However, local manufacture of PCC cars would require substantial licence fee payments being made to the Transit Research Corporation [1] in US dollars, as well as purchase of equipment from the United States. The Commonwealth Government had imposed foreign exchange controls as part of its post-war economic recovery plan, and was not about to give the M&MTB free reign to spend scarce US dollars on new trams. After much representation, it finally relented to allow importation of a single set of PCC control and traction equipment, for use under a locally constructed tramcar body. The resulting tramcar was to become known as PCC 980.

M&MTB prototype car PCC 980 in Dandenong Road. FOHTD collection M&MTB prototype car PCC 980 in Dandenong Road. The only visible indication that this car uses PCC technology are the St Louis B3 bogies.
Photograph from the FOHTD collection.

Based on a standard SW6 class body, PCC 980 did not look much different to other Melbourne trams, apart from its inclined windscreen and modified destination blinds. Even the controls were not the standard foot pedals used by PCC trolleys. Instead, one of the foremen at Preston Workshops performed a brilliant modification to the controls so they mimicked the standard operation of the hand controller and air brake of a W class tramcar, mounted in an M&MTB RC2 controller case.

It was rumoured that on test prior to entering service in 1950, early one morning PCC 980 exceeded 70 miles per hour down St Kilda Road. In any case, acceleration and braking performance of PCC 980 was far superior to that of standard W class tramcars. In order to prevent accidents, the high acceleration rate notch on the controller was blocked off, and the tramcar was allocated to cross-suburban route 69, where enthusiastic driving was less likely to be an issue than would be the case in city-bound routes. There was a particular concern that the superior braking characteristics of PCC 980 would result in rear-on collisions in the heavy peak hour tram traffic on city routes.

Interior of the PCC 980 controller. Photograph courtesy Keith S. Kings Interior of the controller of PCC 980, circa 1950, showing the standard PCC foot controls mounted vertically in a M&MTB RC2 controller case. Note in the top right hand corner the fittings normally attached to the accelerator and brake pedals.
Photograph courtesy Keith S. Kings.

However, the plan for a new class of tramcars for Bourke Street based on PCC technology was not to be, and PCC 980 was to remain an orphan, despite it being by all accounts a highly successful tramcar design. Instead the Bourke Street cars were the final development of the long-lived Melbourne W class trams – the W6 class of thirty cars and the W7 class of forty cars.

It was not until 1960 that PCC 980 was allocated to service on the Bourke Street routes, mostly on route 96. PCC 980 was finally withdrawn from service in May 1971 and stored at Preston Workshops. It was subsequently used to test features for the prototype car PCC 1041 during 1972, including an interior heating system. Subsequently, the trucks, bolsters and control equipment were removed from PCC 980 and installed in PCC 1041.

Melbourne’s second car to be classified as a PCC tram, number 1041, was to see a short and inglorious life, unlike its predecessor. However, both PCC cars have survived into preservation – 1041 at the Melbourne Tram Museum at Hawthorn Depot, and 980 in the collection of the Tramway Museum Society of Victoria.

M&MTB PCC 1041 at Preston Workshops, 1973. M&MTB photograph M&MTB PCC 1041 at Preston Workshops, 1973.
Official M&MTB photograph.

So why did Melbourne miss out on a large fleet of PCC tramcars? It was largely a matter of timing. The establishment of Preston Workshops in the 1920s precluded a large investment in new construction techniques required for PCC tramcars, especially in the recovery period after the Great Depression. This was followed by the disruption of the Second World War. The financial stringencies and foreign exchange controls required for the post-war recovery prevented acquisition of new technology, and then the ascension of the Bolte State government in 1955 cut off new capital investment in Melbourne’s tramways.

By the time Bolte was replaced as Premier of Victoria in 1972 by the more tram-friendly Hamer, the time of the PCC tramcar as the cutting edge in urban electric traction was over, and Melbourne was only to see two solitary examples of PCC technology – neither of which could be regarded as classical examples of the type.

Bibliography

Brill, D. (2001) History of the J.G. Brill Company, Indiana University Press
Buckley, J.R. (1975) History of Tramways from Horse to Rapid Transit, David & Charles
Cross, N., Budd, D., and Wilson, R. (1993) Destination City (Fifth Edition), Transit Australia Publishing
Jones, R. (2005) Fares Please: An economic history of the M&MTB, Friends of Hawthorn Tram Depot
O’Regan, G. (1995) The PCC Car – Not So Standard, www.nycsubway.org

Footnotes

[1] The Transit Research Corporation inherited the patents governing PCC trolleycar design from the ERPCC.