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Flashback 1952: Runaway Mosman tram crashes into Sydney Harbour at 100km/h.

Published On: July 20, 2023

Sydney’s tram network served the city for more than 100 years and was the second largest in the world after London. With more than 1,600 cars in service during its peak in the 1940s, a staggering 405 million passenger journeys were recorded annually.

Mosman’s history with the electric tram began in 1893, when a line from Ridge St extended to Military Rd, opening the once sleepy outpost to a growing population.

Within three years, a tram was running to and from Spit Junction every 45 minutes during weekdays, hourly on weeknights and half-hourly at weekends, taking 13 stops and 20 minutes to reach North Sydney.

A tram travels down Military Rd in the 1950s. For more than 100 years this was Sydney’s preferred way to travel.

But as the popularity of tram travel increased, so too did mishaps, with accidents involving workers, commuters and hapless pedestrians occurring daily, as the iron maidens fought for space on narrow and congested streets.

The most dangerous route of all was to Athol Wharf, near the lower entrance to Taronga Zoo. A single track that stretched from Bradleys Head Rd to the terminus, it was a renowned terror ride, with the toast racks often losing traction while descending the steep gradient.

Packed commuter trams plunged into Sydney Harbour at Athol Wharf on three occasions.

Commuters travelling to the city via Athol Wharf had many narrow escapes, with trams sometimes ended up in Sydney Harbour.

This is how the Sydney Morning Herald reported one of the most serious Mosman tram incidents, on 21 July 1952.

A runaway tram rushed more than a mile downhill in Bradley’s Head Road, Mosman, yesterday, hurtled 60 feet through the air on to some rocks-and came to rest with its driver’s cabin and front seats in the Harbour near Taronga Zoo wharf.

Four people were injured – a man and a woman who were the only passengers, and the driver and conductor who jumped clear just before the crash.’

THE CONDUCTOR: Alexander Erban, 39, a Dutch migrant, of Tutus Street, Balgowlah, is in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital with a fractured skull and other injuries. His condition last night was critical.

THE DRIVER: Raymond John Simpson, 25, of Spruson Street, Neutral Bay, suffered head injuries and severe shock.

THE PASSENGERS: Charles Leacock, 75, of Prince Albert Street, Mosman [head injuries and shock], and Mrs. E. L. Barbayrook, of Garland Street, Lane Cove [head injuries, cuts and shock].

The crash on 20 July 1952 and pictured here, happened just before 9am on a winter weekend.

The tram was the 8.23 am. from Balmoral to Athol Wharf. The crash occurred at 8.50 am.

The tram – one of the new corridor types – crashed through the blocks at the end of the rails, tore up 30 feet of road and shot off the embankment into the sea.

The tide was out and the tram came to rest partly on the rocks and partly in water 20 feet deep.

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The force of the crash broke the tram’s windows, splintered the wooden framework, twisted steel and wrecked the driver’s cabin. The wheels and electric motors were wrenched off and many seats were ripped from the floor.

Driver Simpson called the ambulance and helped the injured passengers after jumping from his cabin. Three wagons from Central District Ambulance were soon on the scene

Ambulance officers found conductor Erban unconscious on the road with his head in a pool of blood.

The story made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 July, 1952.

THE DRIVER: Changed Trams

Driver Simpson said yesterday: “I changed trams at the top entrance to the Zoo because the brakes on the first one were no good.”

“As soon as we started off in the second one it began to skid. The wheels were locked, but they just skidded down the wet rails.”

“I dropped sand on the rails to try and get the wheels to grip, applied the hand brake, and did everything “possible, but I never had a chance.”

“We skidded down beside the Zoo. We turned sharply to the right at the entrance to Ashton Park and I thought we would leave the rails.

“We were doing at least 45 miles an hour as we rushed past the lower entrance to the Zoo, where the conductor jumped.

“I called out to the passengers to jump, then jumped myself. The passengers stayed in the tram.”

he end of the line. You can see the top of the partly submerged tram, crippled by the waters edge at Athol Bay.

THE ONLOOKER: “I Heard A Scream”

Mrs. O. Moffitt, of Badham Avenue, Mosman, who runs a kiosk on the Zoo wharf, saw the accident.

She said: “I looked through window of the kiosk and saw the tram rushing down the hill at a terrific speed.

“I saw the conductor jump off, then the tram flash past me. “I saw the driver jump just before the tram left the end of the road.

“He rolled over several times and got up. There was a terrific crash at the end of the line after the tram disappeared.”

A tramway breakdown gang worked all day yesterday getting the tram hauled back on to the roadway. Tram schedules between Balmoral and Athol were not affected.

Detectives from the C.I.B., including Detective sergeant H. J. Crowley, Detective S. C. Turbitt, A. D. Mantell, and members of the Scientific Bureau are investigating the accident the second of its kind at this spot.


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Finally! Mosman Market returns to the village green this August and we’re here for it!
Jacarandas for Newborns: North Sydney Council celebrates new arrivals with the gift of a tree.

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Don’t miss our top stories delivered FREE each Friday.

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