Trams were one of the earliest modes of public transport in Singapore but were phased out by end of 1927. Both steam and electric trams plied the island, carrying passengers and cargoes. Tram operators faced problems including competition and funding, while drivers of other modes of transport such as bullock cart often interfered in the daily journey of trams. Trolley busses replaced electric trams, ending Singapore's experiment with this mode of public transport.
In the 19th century, Europe was experiencing the Industrial Revolution and was exporting machinery to all parts of the world. To transport these cargoes, 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.
To facilitate commerce via steam shipping, a deep-water dock was constructed at Singapore's New Harbour in 1897. By this time, there were two centres of growth on the island; the town around Singapore River and the New Harbour. A link to transport cargoes between these two centres was recognised, a need that was seriously addressed by the introduction of steam trams.
In 1882, a group of British men formed the British East India Syndicate and applied to the Municipal Commissioners to construct and work street tramways. Under the 1882 Tramways Ordnance, approval was given to construct lines that would reach the whole of Singapore Town, namely:
First: Crawford Street to Tanjong Pagar Docks.
Second: Sirangun Road (early form of spelling for Serangoon Road) to High Street.
Third: Collyer Quay to terminus at Borneo Company's Wharf.
Fourth: Boat Quay to Robinson Quay.
Fifth: Boat Quay to Robinson Quay via Market Street.
The syndicate as promoters of the tramways launched the Prospectus of the Singapore Tramways Company on 8 December 1883. The first rails were laid out on 7 April 1885, leading to the start of the first regular service over Tanjong Pagar to Johnston's Pier from 3 May 1886. For the opening of the service, 14 steam tram engines were ordered in 1885 and two more in 1887.
The high fares did not attract the people to travel on trams. The high fares were due to high operational costs and outlays. Singapore had been served by a variety of land transport which were much cheaper. The cheapest fares on the tram were 10 cents for first class and 6 cents for second class (the rickshaws offered half the price) and the trams could also transport animals and cargoes. It was much cheaper to travel on other means ; there was the gharry, a horse-drawn carriage of light design imported from India for the wealthier passengers, and the rickshaws and bullock carts for the common people. In addition there were also porters and carriers to transport goods. The rickshaws were the most numerous, posing the toughest competition for the trams.
Within three years of operations, the Directors of the Singapore Tramways Company approached the Tanjong Pagar Docks Company to sell the system but were turned down. After struggling for another year, they turned to the auctioneers to get the best price possible. The tramway was auctioned off for a mere $186 000 to the Tanjong Pagar Docks Company which must had been less than scrap value. Modifications were done to the tramcars to economise costs but closure of the steam trams eventually came, on 1 June 1894.
In 1901, the Singapore Tramways, Limited, was registered in London by a UK concern which was looking to extend its operations overseas as the home market became saturated with suppliers of electricity. The Singapore Tramway was banking its success on the construction and servicing of a system of tramways throughout Singapore.
After protracted negotiations with the Municipal Authorities in Singapore, the company through the Tramways Ordinance, 1902 started laying down the tramways which in fact 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 a steam lorry. The company also built a Power Station in Mackenzie Road in 1905 to generate current for its trams. The station also supplied electricity to the Municipality for street lighting.
The company bought 50 single deck passenger cars for their operations. There were three classes of travel and the structure of fares was both odd and expensive. For the transport of freight, the company bought locomotives and freight wagons, and the types of cargoes transported included various animals (including horse, mule, ox, cow, bull, pig, sheep), construction materials (including coal, charcoal, limestone, sand), agricultural produce (including sugar, grain, corn and floor), manufactured goods and wares and parcels. Meanwhile in London in March 1905, the Singapore Tramway was taken over by the Singapore Electric Tramways, Limited.
The electric tramways opened to the public on 24 July 1905 to little fanfare. There was little public interest as they seemed to be contented with the already established modes of transport then available. Run-ins with bullock carts and rickshaw drivers as well as vandals troubled the electric tram operations. But the growth of the island's commerce provided the impetus for increased hauls, which included passengers though people traffic on the trams increased slowly. The competition from rickshaws was still stiff. The reduction in tram fares increased ridership to 32 000 in 1909, and at the end of that year, the company was in the black with an ultra-modest profit of £134.
The tram operators faced the strain of having to replace the tracks and maintain the generators. By 1913, the whole of the tracks required replacement and the generators were worked to full capacity. WWI restricted the overhauling efforts, and by 1921, the company was making losses £50 000 annually. Professional advice was sought from the successful Shanghai Electric Construction Company and a complete rehabilitation was undertaken in a final ditch effort to keep the system alive. The trams were rebuilt and the fare scales were revised. Fares for short-distance travellers (less than one and a half miles) were reduced and the result was dramatic. There was a 235% increase in ridership and revenues increased by 95%. 1923 ended with a £23 000 profit even after meeting the costs of the rehabilitation programme. However just as the system became viable, the commissioners suddenly refused to extend tramway concessions on the grounds of incompatibility of interest of parties over the state of the roads over which the trams run. Indeed the commissioners found it an embarrassment that the reconstructed tracks ran on fine, metalled surface but the outside lanes were battered.
Singapore Electric Tramways Limited wound up and in 1926, it became the Singapore Traction Company, Limited, paving the way for trolley buses. Tram to trolley bus conversion took place in stages, with the last changeover happening at the end of 1927.
Chan, K. B, & Tong, C. K. (Eds.). (2003). Past times: a social history of Singapore (pp. 112-113). Singapore: Times Edition.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 PAS -[HIS])
The land transport of Singapore: From early times to the present (pp. 31-36). (1984). Singapore: Archives and Oral History Department by Educational Publications Bureau.
(Call no.: RSING 779.9388095957 LAN)
Tyres, R. (1993). Ray Tyres's Singapore then & now (p. 191). Singapore: Landmarks Book Pte Ltd.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
York, F. W, & Phillips, A. R. (1996) Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses (pp. 5-16). Sidney: DTS Publishing Limited.
(Call no.: RSING 388. 41322095957 YOR)
List of Images
York, F. W, & Phillips, A. R. (1996) Singapore: A history of its trams trolleybuses and buses. (pp. 5-16). Sidney: DTS Publishing Limited.
The information in this article is valid as at 2006 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.