Trams



Launched in the 1880s, trams were one of the earliest modes of public transportation in Singapore. Both steam and electric trams used to ply the island, carrying passengers and cargo. Tram operators faced problems including competition and funding, while drivers of other means of transportation such as bullock carts often interfered in the daily journey of trams. Electric trams were phased out by the end of 1927, and replaced by trolley buses.1

Background
In the 19th century, Europe, undergoing the Industrial Revolution, was exporting machinery to all parts of the world. To transport these cargo, larger steamships were built. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 increased shipping traffic to the East and amplified Singapore’s importance as a trading crossroad of the Far East.2

To facilitate commerce via steamship, a deep-water dock was constructed at Singapore’s New Harbour (later renamed Keppel Harbour) in 1897. By this time, there were two centres of growth on the island: the town around Singapore River, and New Harbour. The introduction of steam trams addressed the need for a link between these two centres for the transportation of cargo.3

Steam trams
In 1882, the London-based Singapore Tramway Company was formed.4 It applied to the municipal commissioners to construct and operate street steam tramways. On 8 December 1883, the Singapore Tramway Company launched a prospectus to construct and build tramways for the transport of passengers and goods in Singapore.5


Under the Tramways Ordinance of 1882, approval was given to construct lines that would reach the whole of Singapore Town, namely:6
1. Crawford Street to Tanjong Pagar Docks
2. Serangoon Road to High Street7
3. Collyer Quay to terminus at Borneo Company’s Wharf
4. Boat Quay to Robinson Quay
5. Boat Quay to Robinson Quay via Market Street8

The first rails were laid on 7 April 1885, and the first regular service from Tanjong Pagar to Johnston’s Pier began on 3 May 1886. Fourteen steam tram engines had been ordered in 1885 and two more in 1887.9

However, the high fares deterred commuters from travelling on trams. The costliness of the fares was attributed to high operational costs and outlays.10 At the time, Singapore was also served by a variety of land transport that were much cheaper.11 The cheapest fares on the tram were 10 cents for first class and six cents for second class (rickshaws cost half the price), but they could also transport animals and cargo.12

The trams had to compete with the cheaper means of transportation such as the gharry, a horse-drawn carriage of light design imported from India for the wealthier passengers; as well as the rickshaws and bullock carts for the common people.13 In addition, there were porters and carriers to transport goods. Being the most numerous, the rickshaws posed the toughest competition for the trams.14

Within three years of operation, the directors of the Singapore Tramway Company approached the Tanjong Pagar Docks Company to sell the system, but the deal was rejected. After struggling for another year, they turned to the auctioneers to get the best price possible. In December 1889, the tramway was auctioned off for $186,000 to the New Harbour Dock Company, Limited,15 which subsequently offered half of its shares to Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, Limited. The latter agreed to the deal and thus the two companies became joint owners of the Singapore Tramway Company.16

Modifications were subsequently made to the tramcars to economise costs but steam trams eventually ceased operations on 1 June 1894.17

Electric trams
In 1901, Singapore Tramways, Limited was registered in London by a British company that was looking to extend its operations overseas because the home market had become saturated with suppliers of electricity.18 Singapore Tramways was banking its success on the construction and servicing of a system of electric tramways throughout Singapore.19

Through the Tramways Ordinance of 1902 and after protracted negotiations with the municipal authorities in Singapore, the company started laying down the electric tramways. The construction involved recreating and extending the routes once ran by the steam trams. A huge amount of muscle power went into the construction, aided by bullock carts and steam lorries. In 1905, the company built a power station on Mackenzie Road to generate electrical current for its trams. The station also supplied electricity to the municipality for street lighting.20

Singapore Tramways bought 50 single-deck passenger cars for its tram operations,21 which had three classes of travel.22 For the transport of freight, the company bought locomotives and freight wagons, and the types of cargo transported included animals (horses, mules, oxen, cows, bulls, pigs, sheep, etc), construction materials (including coal, charcoal, limestone, sand), agricultural produce (including sugar, grain, corn and flour), manufactured goods and wares and parcels.23

In London, 29 March 1905, the Singapore Tramways was officially acquired by the Singapore Electric Tramways, Limited.24 The electric tramways opened to the Singapore public on 24 July 1905 to little fanfare. Run-ins with bullock carts and rickshaw drivers as well as vandals troubled the electric tram operations.25 The growth of the island’s commerce provided the impetus for increased hauls, which included passengers, though human traffic on the trams saw slow growth. The competition from rickshaws remained stiff. Nonetheless, the reduction in tram fares increased ridership to 32,000 in 1909; at the end of that year, the company was in the black – albeit with an ultra-modest profit of £134.26

The tram operators faced the strain of having to replace the tracks and maintain the generators. By 1913, all the tracks required replacement and the generators were worked to full capacity.27 The outbreak of World War I restricted the overhauling efforts; by 1921, Singapore Electric Tramways was making losses of £50,000 annually. It sought professional advice from the successful Shanghai Electric Construction Company, and then undertook a complete rehabilitation in a last-ditch effort to keep the system alive. The trams were rebuilt and the fare scales revised. Fares for short-distance travellers (less than 1.5 miles, or approximately 2.4 km) were reduced and the result was dramatic. There was a 235-percent increase in ridership and revenues increased by 95 percent. Singapore Electric Tramways saw a profit of £23,000 in 1923.28

Just as the system started becoming viable, however, the municipal commissioners refused to extend tramway concessions. They cited incompatibility of the parties’ interests over the state of the roads on which the trams ran. The commissioners were embarrassed that the reconstructed tracks ran on fine, metalled surface, while the outside lanes were battered.29

On 1 October 1925, Singapore Electric Tramways, Limited was replaced by the Singapore Traction Company, Limited, paving the way for trolley buses in Singapore.30 The conversion from trams to trolley buses occurred in stages, with the last changeover happening at the end of 1927.31



Author

Marsita Omar



References
1. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, pp. 12, 41. (Call no.: RSING q388.41322095957 YOR); Transporting you back to the past. (2004, November 6). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
3. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
4. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 125. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
5. The Singapore Tramway Company, Limited. (1883, December 8). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
6. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); Government gazette, June 11th. (1886, June 17). Straits Times Weekly Issue, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); Government gazette, 10th December. (1886, December 13). Straits Times Weekly Issue, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
9. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); Singapore tramways. (1884, October 25). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884—1942), p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
11. Chan, K. B., & Tong, C. K. (Eds.). (2003). Past times: A social history of Singapore. Singapore: Times Edition, p. 112. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 PAS-[HIS])
12. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, pp. 12, 20. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
13. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); Khoo, B. L. (1972, October 27). On the road: From old buggies to new cars. New Nation, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, pp. 8, 12. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); 30 years ago to-day. (1933, March 30). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884—1942), p. 8; Teo, E. (2012, October 16). When trams worked the roads. The Straits Times, pp. 8—9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Sale of the tramways to-day. (1889, December 10). Straits Times Weekly Issue, p. 4; The Tanjong Pagar Dock Company Limited. (1889, December 24). Straits Times Weekly Issue, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. New Harbour Dock Company, Limited. (1890, September 24). Straits Times Weekly Issue, p. 4; The Tanjong Pagar Dock Company Limited. (1889, December 24). Straits Times Weekly Issue, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. York, F. W, & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
18. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); Singapore Tramways Co. Ltd. (1901, September 17). The Straits Times, p. 2; Untitled. (1901, October 21). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
20. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, pp. 16–17. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); Teo, E. (2012, October 16). When trams worked the roads. The Straits Times, pp. 8—9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
22. Tram fares. (1905, August 3). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), p. 77; The tramways. (1905, October 3). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 20. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
23. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 20. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
24. Singapore Electric Tramway Company. (1905, May 5). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. York, F. W, & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, pp. 27—28. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); Tram-wrecking last night. (1905, July 6). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, pp. 28—29. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR)
27. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, pp. 30—31. (Call no.: RSING q388. 41322095957 YOR); Trackless tramways. (1924, November 14). Malaya Tribune, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, pp. 32—35. (Call no.: RSING 388. 41322095957 YOR)
29. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. Surrey: DTS Publishing Limited, p. 35. (Call no.: RSING 388. 41322095957 YOR)
30. Singapore Electric Tramways. (1925, September 30). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884—1942), p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Tyers, R. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmarks Book Pte Ltd, p. 182. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])



Further resource
The land transport of Singapore: From early times to the present. (1984). Singapore: Archives and Oral History Department by Educational Publications Bureau, pp. 31—36.

(Call no.: RCLOS 779.9388095957 LAN)



The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Commerce and Industry>>Transportation
Street-railroads--Singapore--History
Transportation--Singapore--History
Science and technology>>Engineering>>Transportation engineering
Transportation