You Wait for Three Years and Then…

… along comes Donny 375.

All images: The author

A dozen or more reasons prevent your author from driving more diverse vehicles, but determination and perseverance can warrant its own reward. Anyone can pop down to a dealership and sample something new to them, but on the other hand, the total number of places you can experience this type of vehicle is a list ending at one.

Sandtoft, near Doncaster (but residing in East Lincolnshire) is home to over fifty, mainly restored, Trolleybuses – the world’s largest collection[1] Having visited there in late 2018 and upon learning that one could drive such a beast, I made enquiries. The following year’s allocation was already booked, but plenty of room for 2020… the chance to wrestle with vehicular history being necessarily deferred until May 2022.

Doncaster 375 (its fleet number) was originally built in 1943 with a Karrier chassis, clothed in what was known as a Wartime Utility Body, cheap, thin, steel over a poorly seasoned timber frame. The mid-1950s saw the fleet being treated to a Roe of Leeds-made, teak framed body. Post war Britain chose not to invest in these silently efficient buses, December 14, 1963 being the day the last paying passengers climbed aboard. Bradford was the last UK trolleybus system to close in 1972 – the diesel motor bus, oilers to operators, being the chosen successor. Doncaster 375 was one of the first eight vehicles to arrive at Sandtoft in 1969, treated to a full restoration in 2013, remaining resplendent now aged almost 80. 

The day was all about balance and enjoyment; speed not being a factor here. A brief outline of the day’s proceedings (10.00-16.30) by the enthusiastic, friendly and informative staff and then it was out to manhandle this four-score aged giant. Twenty-seven feet long, seven wide and with a separate cabin for the driver, it engenders a wholly unflattering clamber into the cab: Right foot onto front wheel rim, both hands on exterior rails. Heave in.

Derrière secured in the reasonably well-padded seat, my view is dominated by a huge, red steering wheel, a handbrake sprouting from the floor to my right, a myriad of electrical cables and a huge left foot pedal. Recalibrate brain, left for go, right for stop – repeat until 16:30 hrs. Above the driver’s head sit the industrial power switches, requiring a meaty throw to switch either on or off. Aromas of old dust and anticipation. Around six feet from the ground, the spilt screen view of the road ahead is clear.

As were the instructions, left foot down until one hears the first loud click, which takes an inordinately long time as your brain simply isn’t used to this. Once clicked, disengage handbrake, and we’re off, this practically eight-ton bus[2], effortlessly glides forward. The loud pedal has five indeterminately spaced clicks as speed increases. Encouragement to press on to the second click garners a messy click from two to three in an instant, the bus lurching a little as I try to connect the clicks smoothly. I maxed out at three. And have yet to master that wheel – left turn ahead! 

An instinctive action, the wheel passes quite easily through both hands, four and half turns, lock to lock. Constantly assessing and encouraging, our guide[3] suggests I speed up to click three, then coast around the corners. And should the speed need diminishing, the handbrake proves a smoother retardant. The right foot pedal wakes the gruff sounding and keenly felt air assistance, rumbling floor and fillings alike, and still so alien in concept. Concentration levels are enough to dry the mouth and make both palm and forehead damp; so much to take in on a Sunday morning! The vehicle’s weight slows down momentum as I maintain the turn and trying to apply first click, I hit third. ‘Everyone does it’, enters my left ear as I try to take in the instructions, determine sight lines and get those bloody clicks right. Impressions are of pride alongside moderate terror at being let loose in this museum piece.

Bizarrely, there’s a sudden urge to check mirrors. To my right, a small rectangular device showing something indistinct far away. Leftward, a reflective postage stamp. This would be used to check for passengers alighting, I’m told. The bus shudders, the teak trembles. Poor road surface, a haphazard click or the thought of checking these tiny mirrors in the dark?

This anti-clockwise loop is merely to introduce the equipment and its capabilities, and with first loops complete, we now tried the clockwise route in order to feel a different radius and be introduced to the overhead wire systems. Two poles, thirty feet in length articulately connect to the bus roof. Stiff springs ensure contact to the above wires and unless the driver gets too frisky with manoeuvres, de-wiring should not occur. By now, the left foot has become reasonably acquainted with the clicks. However, dead spots, where the electrical circuits have no power due to the system set- up or perhaps a signal turn, caused this rookie bus driver no-end of upset. An in-cab buzzer sounds if done incorrectly; derision, even in a lighthearted style, can linger like that buzzing. Struggling to engage brain, I muddled through, only once getting everything correct.

Disembarking akin to a sack of potatoes and slightly fried, the halt for the much needed (and sumptuous) lunch gave time to talk the morning through with everyone. Today’s foursome of novice TDE’s[4] experience similar feelings. The drivers of the day required months of training – we had but minutes.

The afternoon would prove more rewarding as we began to string everything together – clicks, corners, buzzes (or lack thereof) and coasting. Competent was still too strong a phrase, but confidence and enjoyment swelled. We then attempted the trickiest performance, a right hand turn from the station where one has to apply two left foot clicks, engage the handbrake and prepare to heave on that wheel. The bus fights you, as does your brain once more, but it works – like a dream. Shifting eight tons of metal and wood never felt so rewarding!

In true civilised style, afternoon tea was then served – if only to let both bus motors and would-be drivers cool as the ambient temperature rose to a full 20° Celsius[5]. A repast and back in the saddle accelerating and coasting with aplomb, the dead-spots a distant memory. Donny 375, a squeaking, clattering friend, with a forgiving handbrake and all too soon, our full and final drive was over. 

Those awaiting their turn were offered the conductor rôle. Donning money bag and ticket machine (too warm for jacket and hat), ‘the dude at the back’ is actually in charge of the vehicle. The conductors were formidable characters, verbally chastising passengers and driver alike or metering out admonition to cheeky urchins. They would also bellow “Remain seated!” should you dare to alight just because the bus had slowed up, or press the bell twice, signalling the driver to go – just as you were a breathless six feet away from boarding.

Overall, an emotional drive. Along with a doffed chapeau to the volunteer staff of Sandtoft who keep these enigmatic and charming vehicles alive.

[1] www.Sandtoft.org.

[2] Laden down with the other three expectant drivers, families, friends and the extra staff – about a dozen souls.

[3] A stripling thirty-five years old, Richard is an old hand driving trolleybuses and the museum’s chief instructor. His seat being the hard, wooden motor cover box. 

[4] Trolleybus Driving Experience. Four drivers per day, events held six times a year, depending on, in the main, bus and staff availability. 

[5] Low speed manoeuvring plays merry hell with the electric motors, even in the perennially cold northern climes. Such ancient vehicles need TLC.

Author: Andrew Miles

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

19 thoughts on “You Wait for Three Years and Then…”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. That sounds like a fun day and thank you for sharing your experience here. I’d love to try it.

    In The Netherlands trolleybuses are still used in the city of Arnhem. I’ve never been in one, though.

    1. You can find plenty of trolley buses in cities like Salzburg, Vienna and Berne where their network never was abandoned. And new ones in Zurich where a network is currently established.

      https://regiotours.net/tools/imager/imager.php?file=%2Fmedia%2Fimage%2Foriginal%2F5525.jpg&width=640

      The story reminds me of a one hour stint in a railway driving simulator.
      I’m normally anything but a railway guy and driving a cargo train of nearly one kilometre length definitely would not be my kettle of fish but instilled great respect for those who do it for a living.

  2. Good morning Andrew. What a great day out! I never quite understood the advantages of trolley busses over trams. If the route is dictated by the overhead cables, then why not run in rails? (I suppose the mechanics of the pantograph allows a degree of flexibility, but not much.)

    Also, I’m surprised to read in Dave’s comment of a new network being built in Zurich. I would have expected battery-powered buses to be cheaper overall.

    1. Trolley buses with additional batter power are a favourite.
      This makes the overhead cable network simpler because buses can pass road crossings (which are a nightmare in terms of the overhead cables) on battery power and they can use battery power to pass sections where overhead lines can’t be installed.

    2. Let’s not forget Lausanne, also located in Switzerland:
      https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Trolleybuses_in_Lausanne

      Advantages as compared to rails are the ability to drive around (badly) parked cars or cyclists, for instance, and of course the ability to master much steeper hills. Also historical reasons prevail, overhead cables still being less complicate to install or repair than rails where these are not already present.

      Reasons for the choice of hybrid (trolley + batteries) buses in Zürich (line 83) was that these use the already present cables of line 72 and then switch to battery usage for the rest of the route. Of course these batteries are charged when in trolley mode. This allows these buses to be always ready.

    3. Trolley buses are actually very common in Switzerland. My home town, Winterthur has a network of them which has been operating since the 1930s. It actually repalced a tramway system (probably because it was taking too much space from the cars). Other cities that have trolley buses are Lucerne and St. Gallen.

      I always preferred these buses to the stinky and noisy diesel powered ones on certain smaller bus lines.

  3. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time – as Andrew knows, I have a particular interest in trolleybuses….. Daniel, the advantage of trolleybuses over trams, particularly in the UK, was cost. The infrastructure of steel rails kept to gauge whilst buried in a road surface was problem enough; the tram operator was also responsible for maintaining the actual road surface. But trolleybuses need no rails so the infrastructure cost was limited to the overhead. Trams also cannot deviate, except unintentionally, from their rail-prescribed course; trolleybuses can manoeuvre around obstructions (within the limits of the length of their “booms”).

    Most UK systems, both tram & trolley, were local authority owned; those same authorities, prior to 1948, also often owned the local electricity supply network – an added bonus. In my own home town of Derby the trolleys, unlike the oilers, ran profitably, even after nationalisation of the electricity supply, until their final year of operation in 1969.

    Dave’s ideal is correct and outside of sadly misguided Britain such transports of delight are not unusual.

  4. When I started “big” school in North London, it was a three-mile trolley-bus ride. I still remember the thrill of excitement when a rare diesel RT would roll up, instead of a trolley. Eventually Routemasters arrived and the trolleys were gone, though it took a few more years for the unsightly overhead cables to go.
    I can understand somebody wanting to try driving a bus, but not a trolley-bus.

  5. Did I travel on that ‘Trackless’ on Sandringham Road in Wheatley? Maybe, I can’t really remember, I would have been going shopping with Mum and was fascinated by the vacuum pipes for the cash system in the Coop, not the bus.

    Nice to see that there are some Trolley Busses still maintained and fascinated that there is a driving day. Thank you for that piece.

  6. Along side a very modern tram, here in Nice they are also experimenting with a small number of electric buses. So far I’ve been disappointed. The large electric bus was noisy and rattled, not at all what I was expecting.

  7. I wonder if anyone here remembers or has experience with the gyrobus. Basically it has a large flywheel that is charged while the bus is waiting at the bus terminals. Then the kinetic power is converted back to electricity that I used by an electric motor to drive the bus.

    According to wikipedia this system was only used in a few places in Switzerland, Congo and Belgium.

    1. Gyrobuses used a cast iron flywheel weighing one and a half tons running in a vacuum at up to 3,500 rpm with a circumferential speed of up to 900 kph. The energy was enough for four kilometres and then the wheel had to be accelerated again.
      The interior of a gyrobus with the flywheel casing in sight

      and charging it up

  8. The ‘booms’ of the Geneva trolleybuses regularly came loose from the overhead cables at certain awkward junctions. An internal combustion “donkey engine” would be started up and boom and lines would be reconnected, the process taking no more than five minutes. I suspect that the newer TPG buses may have battery power to do the job of the donkey engine.

    In my own city, about 1200km north of Geneva, Yutong battery-electric buses are everywhere. Impressively smooth and a little too torquey, and apparently capable of doing a full day’s shift on one charge.

    1. No need for donkey engines on British trolleybuses – a long (5-metre?) bamboo pole with a hook on the end and a conductor ready to use it did the job (I speak from experience and suddenly realise how young you all are!!). This was kept in a tube within the bus bodywork and hauled out hand-over-hand when needed. On London trolleys the tube was underneath, accessed from the rear; in Derby it ran between the exterior & interior near-side panels of the lower deck saloon, emerging at the rear platform at waist height. On more than one occasion an over-enthusiastic conductor yanked it out and straight through the windscreen of the vehicle behind…..

      I remember Freerk’s gyrobus being featured in The London Illustrated News many years ago but I don’t believe it was ever demonstrated in the UK. Good idea in theory but I doubt it would have got past our reactionary legislators.

  9. Class 139 Parry People Movers, used on the Stourbridge Town branch line, are a UK light-rail vehicle which use a flywheel propulsion system, with an accompanying LPG combustion engine. Being less than one mile in length, and limited to 20mph, it is perhaps not the most demanding application. Nevertheless, they have been operating on the route since June 2009, so could they be the most successful use of flywheel-powered transportation?

    The UK government is (was?) considering trials of pantograph-equipped heavy vehicles on the M180 motorway, which gave me a chuckle, as I believe that this will take it quite close to Sandtoft and its trolleybuses.

    It sounds like a good experience, I must go myself – at least partly because the company advertised on the side of ‘375’ appears to be Smith & Co (Doncaster) Drinks. The propietor of that firm was a distant relative by marriage, and although I never met the man, it would be interesting to see one of the firm’s adverts as it would have originally appeared.

  10. These frosty morns have delayed my response…

    Thank you for your comments regarding the museum and the Trolleybus Driving Experience. A wonderful if trying experience. As mentioned in the piece, where else can you try this kinda thing?

    As for the modern Trolleybus, they continue to expand in countries such as Mexico, China, many Eastern European states and upto fairly recently, the Ukraine. Investment, as always being the key.

    Above, being a now rather tatty but still breathing former vehicle plying its trade in Aachen from the mid-1950’s, residing now at the museum. A “one and half” deck vehicle. Looks are an objective issue.

    I think it looks great as is!

    1. The Aachen bus is from 1960. It was made by Henschel (hence the star logo) based on a bus design by Büssing.
      Aachen had the country’s longest trolley bus line with nearly 20 kms ‘lap’ length.

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