Stationed in the shadows of towering, half-constructed apartment buildings and newly-opened restaurants is the Dockline Tram, a transit hub decorated with mural-sized photographs of retired tram cars and framed images of old passenger tickets, where Auckland’s heritage tramway is housed.
The area surrounding the tiny hub is the site of a development project set to turn the old industrial harbor into a bustling entertainment district, Wynyard Quarter, over the next 10 - 20 years. This has flooded the area around the tramway with construction, limiting the trams’ runs to Sundays and public holidays only.
James Duncan, who started volunteering at the Auckland Museum of Transportation at 15 years old, began serving full-time as the operations manager at the Dockline Tram two months before its October opening.
Although it only runs the northern part of its original 1.5 kilometer (0.9 miles) loop due to heavy traffic and construction, the tramway still draws an average of 220 passengers who can ride as many times as they want with their all-day passes.
The tram bodies, which have been preserved, restored and repainted to match the style of the Auckland trams of 1930s, offer visitors a taste of history, Duncan says, which is why he fought for them to remain a part of Auckland tourism.
“I think it’s that ongoing love affair with rail vehicles,” he speculated. “It’s just that love affair with things old. People do enjoy things old.”
Fixed with new safety measures, but still operating with the same technology from the 1920s, these trams, with their electric motors and hand brakes, require skill and coordination to drive. Duncan trains part-time drivers to operate the three trams housed at the tramway so they can take shifts as passengers are toted around each Sunday.
Auckland's heritage tram rekindles a piece of its history among modern
“I teach them to make sure they are competent and confident of handling something that weighs around 18 tons and has the lives of some 50 odd people aboard,” Duncan said, gesturing toward the handwritten driver schedule pinned to the corkboard behind his desk.
When the Dockline Tram was originally proposed, it was intended to not only bring back a piece of that history, but also be a people mover, transporting passengers from downtown to the Wynyard Quarter. But with plans to potentially install light rail systems throughout the city, Duncan says Development Auckland, who owns the Dockline Tram and manages the Wynyard development, no longer views it as a means of transport.
“We’re a ‘placemaking activity,’” he said. “It’s rather a modern term that’s used when you’re trying to set up an area. You try to create a sense of place and you have various activities and things people can do when they come down here. That’s where we fit in the scheme of things.”
Duncan and his team of five part-time drivers run 20 to 25 trips around Wynyard Quarter from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Sunday, with special hours on public holidays. Passengers can climb aboard for a 15-minute loop around the area for a flat ticket rate of $2 (U.S. $1.40).
Looking for the original Auckland trams?
The Dockline Tram primarily uses two Melbourne trams originally built in 1926 and 1943, with one smaller Melbourne tram also housed there. After the Auckland trams were decommissioned in the 1950s, they were stripped for their scrap metal, and the wooden bodies were shipped to coastal cities where many were converted into baches, or holiday homes.
Ron Julian is the owner of Te Puru Holiday Park in Coromandel, one of the sites where many of the tram cars ended up. He says the first cars were shipped up the coast to Waikawau in 1956 and Te Puru received their shipment of tram cars in 1958. Visitors can now rent these converted tram baches for their coastal vacations.
"If you really look, you can still see their tram origins but they've added little bits on the side or put new roofs on them," Duncan said. "That was a very big craze up here in Auckland."