Today in Transportation History – 1901: ‘The Man Who Saved Our Trams’

Robert Risson, an engineer who played a crucial role in the retention of the tram system in southeastern Australia’s city of Melbourne, was born in the town of Ma Ma Creek in northeastern Australia. Risson received a bachelor of engineering degree from the University of Queensland in 1922, and the following year he began work as a junior civil engineer for the trams operating in the city of Brisbane on Australia’s east-central coast.

Over the next quarter-century or so, Risson devoted a great deal of time and expertise to modernizing and expanding the city’s tram network. He became its permanent way engineer by 1939. Risson was promoted to transport deputy manager in 1947 and then stepped in as acting general manager in 1948-49 while the incumbent was on an extended business trip overseas.

During much of this timeframe, Risson also served in the Australian military. In 1933, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the army’s Australian Engineers (later Royal Australian Engineers) corps. After Australia entered World War II on the side of the Allies in 1939, Risson performed various engineering duties on the army’s behalf in both the North African Campaign and Pacific Theater.

In 1949, Risson left Brisbane to serve as chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB). At the time, there was much debate in Melbourne – especially in light of the increased presence of automobiles as well as other kind of public transportation – on whether trams even remained relevant in the ever-growing city. With his considerable knowledge of trams and a strong leadership style heavily influenced by his military experience, Risson continually and forcefully made the case that this means of transit was still needed in one of Australia’s most populous cities.

Due in large part to Risson’s efforts, the tram system in Melbourne survived. With more than 155 miles of tracks, it is now the largest network of its kind in the world. Risson retired as M&MTB chairman in 1970. He died in 1992 at the age of 91. In a 2013 Melbourne-based newspaper article on the 25 people whom Melburnians should appreciate the most, Risson was highlighted as “[t]he man who saved our trams.”

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