‘Trams’ is the generic Australian term for smaller trains that in the US are called streetcars (in a shared right of way) and light rail (in an exclusive but usually not separated right-of-way).
The history of trams in Sydney dates from 1879-1961. Notably the early trams (dubbed the Juggernaut) were steam powered, as electric power was not yet feasible. Trackage peaked at 291 km in 1923 (the same year as the peak in the US), and ridership peaked in 1945 (also the same year as the US) with over 400 million rides per year, served by up to 1600 cars on the network at any peak times. Voommaps has developed a high-quality stylised map of the peak network.
Famously Melbourne kept its trams while Sydney engaged in ‘bustitution‘, converting its Tram routes to buses. Unlike the US, there does not seem to be too much nostalgia for Sydney’s disbanded network of trams, perhaps because residential mobility is so high, and so few people lived (or parents lived) in Sydney in the 1940s or 1950s when trams were still running.
On the other hand, the flexible bus networks seem to accumulate circuity in a way that hard-coded tram networks would find difficult. It would be difficult to reroute trams in order to serve a local constituent to the detriment of the system performance as a whole, while buses are easily changed, and these changes seem hard to reverse.
Yet the idea of trams remains more popular than the reality of buses. Some of this is idealisation, some of this is differences in quality of service that are associated with the mode rather than services, and some of this is a real difference in ride quality. This is true so much that a proposed electric bus rapid transit service was pitched as a “trackless tram“.
Sydney built its first modern light rail line (L1) along an old circuitous goods line in 1997 and extended it in 2014.
A second, more significant line (L2 and L3, denoting the two branches) is now under construction from the city along the George Street spine to the Southeastern suburbs down the Anzac Parade, serving the University of New South Wales. This is a dense corridor with a lot of potential demand, and I suspect it will be busy from day one in 2019, and in retrospect, there will be significant regret that it was not a Metro. The shopping district on George Street is being pedestrianized as the tracks are being laid.
The new light rails are designed L1, L2, and L3 (the L for LRT), but people still call them trams.
Sydney’s second CBD is planned to have another set of lines radiating from the core in Parramatta. The LRT networks will apparently not interconnect directly, at least not in existing plans, but both will connect with Sydney Trains (and perhaps the Metro if the Sydney Metro West line is ever built connecting Sydney with Parramatta). Uncertainty about whether the Metro will be constructed has reduced the size of the Parramatta network, as the eastern leg of the system serves similar areas to the proposed Metro, so they don’t want to build both at the same time. Of course the Metro will have greater station spacings, so the LRT and Metro don’t necessarily compete as much as they complement, but it is an issue in a world with scarce resources, even in Australia. While one could easily imagine extending an LRT eastward along Parramatta Road to the University of Sydney and on to the City somewhere, especially if it were sufficiently separated from the Metro Line, the ‘trackless tram’ serves the same function, and the government can’t do both.
A bi-radial system, with hub and spoke systems centered on different CBDs eventually joining is in fact how the Streetcars in the Minneapolis- St. Paul region evolved.
Another line was mooted from Barangaroo to the University of Sydney, but this proposal has been returned to the sheds.
Is Melbourne better for having kept its trams? I suspect most people would say yes, but I am not convinced. Would Sydney have been better off if it had kept its trams? This is less obvious. Though the cities are similarly sized, if dissimilar topographically, the transit mode share in Sydney (23%) is notably higher than Melbourne (16%). This is due in part to more trains, but Sydney’s buses (+trams+ferries) outperform Melbourne’s trams (+buses+ferries) in journey to work trips as well.