Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Balmain Dummy

No, this is not another story about The Bolter, aka my paternal grandmother who ran away from Melbourne with one of her students to live in pre bohemian Balmain.

It is another Sydney tram post and it is about the Balmain counterweight dummy car.

While there was an earlier and alternative route, the quickest way to Balmain by tram in about 1910 onwards was from Central Station then called Railway, via Harris Street, Ultimo, then Glebe Island Bridge, Commercial Road, Barnes Street and Weston Road, the last three roads now known roughly as Victoria Road. (I hope)

The Balmain tram then turned into Darling Street and headed straightish to Balmain along Darling Street. At some point later, a branch line was built down Rowntree Street to Birchgrove.

The tram terminus was at the Nicholson/Johnston Street corner in Balmain. This was most unsatisfactory for people who wanted to catch a ferry at the end of Darling Street, but it was an exceptionally steep hill and it was thought that the electric trams could neither climb, nor safely descend the hill. So those on foot faced a trudge uphill of about a kilometre, the distance the tram was short of the Darling Street Wharf.

Not good enough, the citizens cried and in response very expensive plans were drawn up that involved property resumptions to avoid the direct steep descent.

Work had even started when along came a chappie with an idea. I find it quite complex and as I cannot properly understand it, I cannot explain it to you. But here is a general view. There was a tunnel dug under the tram line as the line was constructed and a system of cables and hydraulics were installed Above ground was a mini tram, the counterweight. To descend the hill, the arriving tram would 'kiss' the counterweight dummy tram and then the tram's speed would be held by the counterweight while going downhill. The reverse happened when the tram ascended the hill, with the counterweight dummy helping the tram back up the hill.

The system worked extremely well, saved the government thousands of pounds and the person who invented it was offered a pittance for his trouble. Eventually he did receive proper renumeration.

Towards the end of Sydney's tram system, in 1955 the Balmain counterweight dummy was taken back to a depot and trams once again terminated at Nicholson Street, with no replacement bus service up and down the hill until a terminus and turning area was built.

A month later, the Balmain tram service was cut short back to Rowntree Street. Late 1958 saw the last tram to Balmain.

I can't remember now if the counterweight dummy is on display at the Sydney Tram Museum at Loftus or Powerhouse Museum but I am sure you could track it down if you want to.

Picture courtesy The Western Lines of the Sydney Tram System.


  1. "track" it down ... bwah ha Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

    is it just me noticing that governments are very good at removing services?

    Ballarat had a tram system removed in the 60's, which is very much needed right now - but they can't afford to put it back.
    Traffic is gridlocked every Friday from 3:30 on

  2. I hate trams...dun ask me why! :)


  3. Totally unintentional pun BWCA. It is a shame about Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong.

    Maybe you have to be of a certain age Keshi.

  4. I'm still waiting for the proposed "new electric trams" up and down North Rd, as promised in the North Rd Estate sales ads from a gazillion years ago lol.
    Great post :)

  5. That is one I have not heard of Jayne. I wonder if my grandparent's house was part of that estate, just east of Golf Road.

  6. Could have been, I'll check at the Oakleigh Historical society, they've got a copy of the ad.

  7. I'd be very interested to know Jayne, but don't go to too much bother.

  8. Tramcar Trev1:57 pm

    As a person who has orgasms when travelling by tram I'd like to make a few observations
    1) the tramway in Ballaaarat was closed in 1971 though a small section is still open for the publics pleasure with absoultley amazing trams over 100years of age
    20 the Balmain dummy is indeed still alive and could I believe be pushed around at the Tramway Museum at Loftus
    3) As CEO of the Lanyon Valley Electric Tramway (now under construction) I will be building a replica of the Balmain Dummy but its real purpose will be as a track cleaning car and will be pushed or towed around as required...

  9. Trev, I have been on Ballarat trams a couple of times now. I have also seen the dummy at Loftus. Will check out your link once I work out where Lanyon Valley is.

  10. Ok people now I need your help. I want to build a copy of the Famous Balmain Dummy for my own tramway. I'm seeking photos and I would give a G scale trolley ear for a dimensioned drawing/sketch....

    1. CEO, while I find Sydney's old tram system fascinating, it is not my area of expertise. I am sure people at the yahoo group, Trams Down Under will be more than helpful. The are several photos of the dummy in the archives and some quite knowledgeable people, including people who actually experienced its operation.

    2. Yes, I did ask there but received a nil return. I'm working from some original phots taken in the manufacturers yard and scaling from those... Mine wont be an exact replica but it will be a very close representation.
      I saw it working as a kid, had a rellie who lived in Balmain and My grandad worked on the Steam Tram @ Parammatta. We used to travel by ferry then up the hill and along Darling Street to a long since forgotten tram stop..... Anyway this will do the job superbly for what I really want, some way of disguising a rather ugly track cleaner....

    3. CEO, I am surprised people at TDU weren't more helpful. I will keep monitoring you blog to see the end result. So you visited Balmain after the tram stopped running down to the wharf?

  11. yes, we visited as a family for some time travelling by bust and changing at Rozelle for a 500 to see the same rellie now incarcerated at Gladesville "Hospital" I also worked at Balmain Power Station for around 6 years and used to know my way around Balmain... now I'm snookered and get lost its all one way streets...
    I was there about 12 months ago looking for the descriptive plaque and could not find it so I suspect it's been souvenired. I have a few old very scratched copies of B&W photos and a "second opinion" from a chap who maintained the thing and was working there the night it was disconnected and towed to Ultimo. I found him working as a conductor on the Light rail, had his original badge on and he organised a visit for the electrical engineer of the LVET and myself to the Light rail workshops. He says the counterweight was never to his knowledge removed and the cable was just allowed to fall into the tunnel. Balmain Council also support the fact that it's buried under the road.... I may go back with a metal detector and see if I get a response...

  12. San Francisco had a similar setup called the Fillmore Street Counterbalance. It was part of the Market St. Ry. 22 Fillmore line, which lasted until the trams were replaced by an electric trolley bus line on a route that avoided the steep hill.

  13. Not quite accurate. The Balmain tram ran via Broadway, Glebe, and Forest Lodge much like today’s 433 bus. A very few peak hour trams ran via Ultimo. The detailed story of the dummy can be found in my book on Balmain’s Transport available from the Balmain Association or the Sydney Bus Museum.