The Quiet Revolution

Our Northern correspondent gets off his trolley.


Not wishing for one moment to hasten the demise of our favoured personal transport, we must take into account the future. With planners believing we’re all to live in mega cities and have no need to own or run a car, we seek out alternatives and as is so often the way, we must look to the past to see the future.

In March 1972, the last of the UK’s once huge trolley bus network was hooked down from the frog* in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Neighbouring Leeds toyed with resurrecting such a wild idea in the early 2000’s but came to nought. A sixty year fling with this curious hybrid (that ironically had started in Bradford), of an omnibus and a railed, electrified tram was deemed non-standard and the spiders web of must-be-followed grid was removed, never to be seen again. Well, at least not on British soil.

For the trolley bus is remarkably more relevant today than ever. With increasing pressure concerning environmental affairs along with our incessant capacity to travel, be that a late night revelry trip home, or to catch that connection to a train to your lover or just the simple act of moving, governments want us out of our cars and onto public transport. 

Currently, my home town has undergone a huge change to the (diesel, mainly) bus network equating to bizarre routes, mismanaged timetables, missing buses and frustrated passengers. Just ask my other half… Sheffield has its Supertram, itself a fine way to cross the city for any of the above reasons.

The infrastructure took years to construct and cost over £250 million, (and sold for just £1million…) with delays for everyone en-route. Recent upgrading works caused more heartache and therein lies the problem; any new set up requires huge investment and upheaval for all concerned. Britain chose to tear down its trolley bus grids and deregulate bus companies. Other countries were not so hasty; the trolley bus lives on, thrives even, to this day.

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Beginning a mere four years before Benz brought the patentwagen to life, Dr Siemens “Elektromote” was the world’s first trolley bus in Berlin. Considered more an amusement than viable public transport, it did lead to others enhancing the system. Max Shierman is credited with the two spring loaded poles hooking onto the parallel wires above. Britain took up the trolley bus baton with gusto thus becoming a leader in the field. Transferring skills from car making to that of bus chassis wasn’t too difficult. Leyland, The Rootes Group here in the UK whereas Lancia, Mercedes-Benz and Renault took the trolley bus to Central Europe and far beyond. 

Yes, you read that correctly; the shield moved into trolley buses with the single deck Esatau being made for a twenty five year period from 1948. A double-decker 140 followed later Serving Roma, Milan and Turin along with Athens (amongst many other more provincial places)in quiet harmony to all those buzzing scooters and Fiat 500’s. For that is probably the main trolley bus attribute; silent running. Bar the chattering passengers and the creak and groan of a moving vehicle, they are whisper quiet. Another, being extremely good at acceleration, even uphill. Yet another the capacity to shift millions of passengers, millions of miles with high vehicle longevity; little maintenance required. 

Here’s the but: that canopy of electrical cables. From your Megacity 137th floor apartment window the canopy disappears; from street level looking up, all you see are spiders webs, the occasional arc of blue electricity. Omelettes and breaking eggs; we need to travel, usually for employment so why not make it smooth as possible?

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From our rudimentary beginnings, the trolley bus has significantly moved on. Now confined to the museum, the trolley bus of old did set up some very forward thinking from today’s car manufacturers who have diversified into public transport.

Step forward Škoda.a.s (electrical transport division), Iveco, Daimler; as with their car brands we see slightly different methodologies to providing that service. Where once the driver had to be constantly aware of road position in order to stay “on-grid” with hybrid engines fitted you can now leave the canopy without fear of any wrath from the poor soul whose job was to reconnect you. Energy harvested from braking can extend “range” in order to supplant you from your high rise living accommodation to office block. And nary a belch of filthy particulates. 

A Russian built Trolza operating in Argentina 2017. (c) Wikipedia

And how the systems have grown. Hugely popular the world over, many countries have invested in the quiet revolution that the trolley bus is. Russia, China and many eastern states run fleets of modern, comfortable trolley buses for huge distances. The Yalta to Simferopol route being some 53 miles in very hilly Crimea. The America’s being not quite as prevalent but far more proactive than here in Britain. 

There’s a comforting inner glow that comes with fuss free, emission free travel. Add in those insect-like looks and stick a Winged Arrow on the front along with the destination screen displaying “home” and I’m happy. Of course I would always prefer to drive but when circumstance dictates, waft me about in silence, if you please. Shame I’ve been waiting some time and no sign of the bus just yet… I’ll give it another five minutes. 

* Hooked down from the frog was the term for, unsurprisingly un-hooking the electrical connections from the “frog”, the wire switches above.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

15 thoughts on “The Quiet Revolution”

  1. When you want to see electricity as the source of power for transport look no further than Austria. With hydroelectric power stations all over the Alps their railway system was nearly fully electric even before 1900 and the use of trolley buses was widespread.
    Salzburg stayed faithful to the system up into our times and their current buses are very modern. Salzburg is introducing trolley buses with battery pack to eliminate the biggest disadvantages of the trolley bus concept. Running on a battery for short distances the buses can overtake each other, they can leave the track and pass roadworks and then return to the track and they could pass large road intersections without the need for a complicated system of overhead wires. Wiring up intersections for buses can become very troublesome because a trolley bus always needs two wires as opposed to a tram or railway train that only needs one because it can use its track as the Earth connection – something a bus can’t.

    1. Switzerland is very similar to Austria in this respect. Steam trains were practically gone after 1900, and Diesel was only used for shunting. And many cities had (and still have) trolley networks. I remember the house of my childhood, sitting very close to the street, where a trolley wire carrier was directly attached to the wall. My parents said I could always hear the bus long before it was coming, by the subtle noises the wires transferred to the building.

      What is nowadays done with batteries and recovery I first saw when modern bus generations started to replace the old Saurer and Berna buses originating from the 50s and 60s. In the early 80s we first saw “hybrid” trolleys (no one knew this word at that time) equipped with a small Diesel engine for passing roadwork and manoeuvring at the garage. They produced a lot of noise and not much propulsion, but did their job.

      I consider the cities very lucky that still have such a network. Many times these have been threatened to be torn down, as the busses were non-standard fare and easily cost double a Diesel bus. The city I now live in doesn’t have this tradition, and a few years ago they instead tried to improve their carbon footprint and noise profile with hybrid vehicles. They had to be put out of service after a few years, as they were not fit for purpose (yet) – unreliable, expensive to service.

  2. Interesting stuff, thank you, Andrew. I’m sure I’m missing something obvious, but I don’t quite get trolley busses: what is the point of them not being on rails when they have to follow the path of the overhead cables, at least within the flexibility of the pantograph? I understand Dave’s point about the battery pack on modern trolley busses allowing them to disengage from the overhead power lines for short distances, but this option wasn’t available to earlier designs. Surely, all things considered, electric trams are a better option, especially as they need only a single overhead conductor and don’t have to be steered, so autonomous unmanned trams are viable?

    1. As a cyclist, I can tell you exactly what’s the advantage of not having rails on the streets.

    2. Edinburgh’s recent experience with installing a tram network should give people pause for thought. Digging up miles of road to lay tracks is not a straightforward matter. And the cyclists absolutely hate the tracks, for good reason. There has been at least one fatality to a cyclist since the tracks were laid.

      Nottingham has also recently installed a tram network – this also caused years of disruption and the new road infrastructure is odd in places, with tram stop islands marooned in the middle of roads.

      I’m not sure this kind of infrastructure really works as intended, especially when ‘retrofitting’ a historic city. Perhaps American cities with their wider streets and grid layouts would be better suited to such transport?

      Electric, fuel cell or range extender buses are surely a better bet. But Andrew’s point about trolley buses that can operate under their power for a short distance make me think that maybe there is a smart solution, where short sections of road could be fitted with overhead wires, and buses could pick up a little boost of charge at strategic locations?

    3. Jacomo: I think concepts like you describe in your last paragraph are already in the thinking. I don’t know if anything serviceable has already been made here.
      Anyone remember Gyrobus?

    4. Ah, I told you I’d missed something obvious…

      I’m old enough to remember the last of Dublin’s original tram lines being removed but, if you wait long enough, everything comes back into fashion. The city built a new team network (well, a couple of lines) about fifteen years ago, called the Luas. I’ve never travelled on it but I recall the first time I saw it, when there had been a coming together between a tram and a Mondeo taxi. The Mondeo came off very much second best from the encounter. This seems to be quite a regular occurrence, if you Google “Dublin Luas accident”.

    5. Yes, accidents, resulting from longer braking distances, are a topic as well.
      Zurich has a lot of places where there’s a separate tram section in the middle of the street and the car lanes are outwards. This reduces collision risk, at least when there are no intersections, but opens other problem fields, for example where to place the stations and waiting areas for passengers. And it only works on really wide streets, which few Swiss cities have. And did I mention cyclists? They usually have no place in such a scheme, so they start using footpaths and piss off pedestrians…

  3. Thank you for those pictures of Lancia trolleys from Porto (both the single and the double decker). I remember travelling in those in my childhood, which brings me also to my memory of them being no so silent – the electrical motors’ buzz was clearly different from Diesel engines, but quite audible (it improved when the Lancias were replaced by more modern vehicles). Eventually, they were replaced by Diesel-only buses (around the end of the 1980’s possibly), until a partially underground city tram system was built at great expense on the beginning of this century.

  4. What happy memories this gave me of living in Leeds. Not that Leeds had trolleybuses in my youth [Indeed it might never have had them] but this was a city that cheerfully cleaved to the car even to the extent of franking letters “Leeds Motorway City of the Seventies” and turning a magnificent 1930’s railway booking hall [Now restored thankfully] into an indoor car-park . Public transport barely registered on the civic mind, despite Charles Roe Coachbuilders, now Optare, been a big local employer. But then despised Manchester got a “Metrolink” [Tram system] and then horror, Sheffield got it’s “Supertram” so Leeds had to have one. too! Except the repeating pattern of the last 25 years is central government turning down Leeds’s tram bids, forcing them to make do with alternative schemes: a guided bus scheme with sideways castors that are guided by concrete lane edgings, blinged up bendy buses that couldn’t cope with snow and a really long cycle lane… to Bradford. Handy for visiting the trolleybuses in Bradford Industrial Museum, where I think that photo was taken. Each scheme was an example of a municipal lowering of sights; “We can’t get a tram, mebe they’ll pay for this instead” and whilst I may be wrong I think the only mass transit scheme they haven’t tried to promote was trolleybuses.

    I’m getting an impression that when cities try to sort out their transport they have a blindspot for the trolleybus. I enjoy holidaying in Catania, in Sicily. The bus system uses short wheelbase LPG buses built by Breda Menarinibus, which allows some low emissions bragging, and at the end of the 90’s they built Europe’s most southerly underground. Wikipedia suggests that the public flocked away, mostly because it didn’t initially go where people needed it to, although I suspect encouraging people to travel on subway trains in an earthquake zone is a big ask. In all my visit’s I’ve never used the Catania Metro, never met anyone who had and never seen anyone going into or coming out of the stations. A big investment for little apparent benefit, could there be another way?

    Well, I’ve got a 1950’s photo of Catania and there pulling out behind an Alfa 1900 on the Via Etnea is… a Lancia Esatau trolleybus with Viberti bodywork. Via Etnea is steep because it goes from sea level higher and higher up the side of Mt Etna, ideal for a light vehicle with strong acceleration… like a trolleybus perhaps!

  5. Here in Toronto, we had a trolleybus network from 1948 to 1993, which had been introduced after the war to replace streetcar lines with low ridership. Upkeep of streetcar rails had ceased because of wartime restrictions, and the cost of rebuilding neglected rights-of-way after 1945 couldn’t be justified on less-used routes. The quiet and clean electric trolley was seen as a good compromise.

    Both streetcars and trolleys (as they were called here) survived the diesel-ization of the 50s and 60s, and in fact the Toronto streetcar system is the last true street railway system left in North America, with new routes added since the 90s and new and enormous Bombardier cars recently replacing the home grown CLRVs and ALRVs. For a while, the companion trolley system also looked like it had a bright future, with new Flyer coaches (recycling many components of the original Brill buses) arriving in 1971, and even a couple of new routes added. Then it all went downhill.

    Admittedly, the capital cost of new trolleybuses was much higher than equivalent diesel buses, so there was little enthusiasm for these vehicles within the local public transit authority, the TTC. Ironically, it was shown during the discussions about abandoning electric buses that overall operating costs were actually far lower, even when factoring in proper overhead wire maintenance. Energy costs were reduced, and the buses themselves both lasted much longer and needed fewer repairs (both the Brills and Flyers were well over 20 years old when taken out of service). Nonetheless, these points were moot by 1992-3 because system and vehicle maintenance had been deferred past the point of no return, and not accidentally.

    At the same time, the provincial government in Ontario (a major funder of the TTC) had created a new bus manufacturer, Ontario Bus Industries (later sold to then shuttered by Daimler) and was insistent on its buses equipping the TTC, the country’s largest transit operator. One of OBI’s new bus models was powered by compressed natural gas, and these were foisted upon the TTC as an acceptable “clean” replacement for the trolleys. Of course, they weren’t, and beyond the dramatically increased carbon footprint, these CNG buses ended up being notoriously fragile and were taken out of service (with many converted to diesel!) after 6 or so years of service.

    But by then, the trolleys were long gone. Today, the TTC is testing three different battery-electric buses and is intending to order a significant number of the winner of the bake-off in the next couple of years. A good step, but you can only look back wistfully at what might have been had Toronto retained its trolleys. One of the prototypes was built by New Flyer, coincidentally also the manufacturer of new trolleybuses for San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. These cities, with lots of hills and abundant hydro-electric power, saw the environmental advantages long before climate change became an issue, and they are so much nicer to ride in than a diesel bus – smooth, quiet and very fast, even up SF’s remarkable hills. We could have had them too.

  6. We had trolley buses here in Wellington up until a couple of years or so ago.

    The network got ripped out, supposedly due to the high cost of maintaining the overhead wires. Some drivers seemed to delight in shuffling the passengers off down the back of the bus with the more rapid acceleration 😉 Due to the layout of the city, unfortunately one trolley bus failing to proceed could stuff up the whole bus network if it broke down in the wrong spot, first because all the other trolley buses would be backed up behind, unable to pass, then the diesel buses would get stuck behind that queue. Late in the piece, they started to fit auxiliary batteries so they could park the poles and drive on the batteries alone. Poles coming off, especially on a windy day (and we have lots of them!) could result in collateral damage.

    We’re slowly getting BEV buses, but these are taking much longer to roll out than most people hoped. There was a plan to have the newer of the old trolleys converted to some sort of hybrid setup, but the company behind that scheme never delivered.

    We too had some overseas public transport consultant from that well known land of public transport efficiency (the US…) come in and redesign the bus network, resulting in a significantly worse service, frequent cancellations and insufficient drivers.

    1. Not only in the US, “public transport efficiency” is often measured in how much money the transport companies can save or how much profit they can make. Switzerland, for a long time proud of their public transport system, also starts to see consequences of that: missing trains, missing drivers, followed by cancelled services or overbooked trains.

  7. I love trolley buses. Growing up in the England of the 1950s, it wasn’t until my family moved to Portsmouth that I ever remember getting on one. Quiet except for a pronounced motor whir but a decent rate of acceleration compared to the groaning underpowered diesel belchers of the day were the attractions for me as a child. Unfortunately, the network was limited, and going down to Southsea from the North End, my bet with myself was whether one or more of the feathery attachments would dislodge itself from the overhead wires. Usually, there WAS such an unfortunate occurrence, however. It seemed to be caused by the utter disregard of conventional drivers to take ANY account whatsoever of the limitations of the trolley system. Then the poor old trolley conductor had to unlash the pole from a tube under the bus and hoist the fallen follower back onto the wires, and it was only luck if he got it in one go, because the bus was usually in the wrong place — which was why the follower had parted ways from the overhead wires in the first instance! As Homer Simpson would say: “Doh!”

    Coming to Canada in 1959, where today 60% of all electricity is produced from hydropower but is unevenly available from that source over the 3500 mile width of the country, unsurprisingly, Halifax NS had single decker trolley buses. Halifax is like Portsmouth, the Navy HQ for our East Coast in this case. The local electricity supply company owned and ran the single-decker trolley buses and system, which made sense. There had been trams as well, but those were long gone, with only leftover rails showing through broken road surface potholes following the freeze-thaw cycles of our late winter. All repaved for the Queen’s summer visits, naturally, so she’d never know what a bunch of uncivilized colonials we are!

    By 1968 the Halifax electric trolley bus equipment was old, and along came General Motors to offer their incredibly noisy Fish Bowl buses on the cheap, as they’d done across North America for three decades, destroying the existing light rail, trams and trolley bus systems of hundreds of cities. There are books on that infamous monopolistic flexing of corporate might. GM was at its height of “What’s good for General Motors is good for America!” blarney.

    From quiet in my student residence at night, now except for a 1 am to 5 am respite, there was the constant howl from outside of tortured GMC two-stroke diesels beating their brains out at maximum rpm against a one-speed (yes, single speed!) Allison torque converter transmission. Pretty bloody awful. If the bus managed to get to about 25 mph, unlikely in downtown areas with stops every few hundred yards, then the transmission finally locked up, cutting out the torque converter. When this happened, there was a god-almighty lurch and bobbing up and down of the bus on its rear suspension. Typical US primitive agricultural blacksmith overbuilt commercial un-refinement for reliability. Not a good change at all from trolley buses, because the overhead system seemed far more reliable than Portsmouth’s when it came to dropped followers. Our weather dictated a robust sytem for winter. As a city, we went almost overnight from tranquility to howling noise instead, not a good “advance” at all.

    Toronto still runs trams and has never stopped using them. Driving there on city streets, you’d better remember that 40 tonnes of badly-braked railed vehicle is bearing down on you if you’re silly enough to stop your car in a stupid place to text on your phone. Splat! Darwinian natural selection at work.

    I’d like to see a return to trolley buses in my city – the European hybrid system using on-board batteries to get around gaps and construction seems like a fine idea to me. Our city is very hilly indeed, and diesel buses struggle to get up steep hills from a stop, which an electric trolley bus dismisses as light work. However, I see little chance that the now gentrified population would allow the erection of more overhead wires again. So, the likelihood is that pure battery-electric buses from outfits like the giant in the field, BYD of China, will come to the fore. They make such buses in the thousands each year, not one-offs like those used in the various European trolley systems shown in this article, interesting though they individually are.

    Thanks for the posting. Very good stuff.

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