Electric buses: Why were trolleybuses ever scrapped?

Posted: January 11, 2020 by oldbrew in Emissions, pollution, Travel

Cardiff trolleybus, 1969 [image credit: David Stowell @ Wikipedia]

They’re certainly quick off the mark and quiet. As with trams the initial costs would be significant, but they do have their advantages.

They were the original electric buses but 50 years ago today saw the plug pulled on the last trolleybus in Wales, says BBC News.

Environmentally friendly and cheap, they finally succumbed to car ownership and fossil fuel on 11 January 1970.

Yet half a century later – almost to the day – local councils now see electric public transport as an answer to congestion and air pollution.

Some experts and enthusiasts even believe that shift could spark a revival for the forgotten trolleybus.

Known as the “trackless trolleys” when they first appeared on UK streets in 1911, trolleybuses became the workhorses of the public transport network.

Freed from the restrictions of tracks, taking their power from overhead cables, they provided clean, affordable and quick transport for the masses.

In Cardiff alone, more than six million journeys were taken in the first 12 months of the system opening on St David’s Day in 1942.

But the boom in private car ownership during the 1960s would spell the beginning of the end. Electricity prices rose and rapidly-growing cities soon outgrew a network of overhead cables in desperate need of investment.

When Cardiff’s trolleybus number 262 returned to the Newport Road depot for the last time in January 1970 it marked the end of an era.

However could local authorities in Wales turn back the clock amid concerns over air quality in our cities?

“It was one of those big mistakes to stop using trolleybuses,” said Stuart Cole, professor of transport at the University of South Wales.

“They were clean, quiet and the technology would only have improved, as we have seen in many European cities.

“With the current thinking over getting away from fossil fuels and dealing with the pollution in city centres, it is inevitable they will come back, and a number of local authorities are looking at that possibility.”

Continued here.

  1. oldbrew says:

    The original Cardiff trolleybuses were powered by electricity from South Wales coal. But they won’t be doing so in future.


  2. Dave Ward says:

    One thing missing from that picture is streets chock-a-block with parked cars & delivery vehicles. A trolley bus only has so much leeway from the overhead cables. These days, with continual roadworks and closures they would be at a considerable disadvantage compared to a “self powered” bus, which can easily take an alternative route, if needed.

  3. oldbrew says:

    Carrying a battery is the other option…

    Electric buses launched in Glasgow in bid to cut emissions
    10 January 2020

    Electric buses are being launched in Glasgow on a commercial route for the first time since the 1960s.

    Bus company First Glasgow said the introduction of the two vehicles was a “statement of intent” as Glasgow aims to become a “net zero” city.

    Electric trolley buses previously operated in the city until they were decommissioned in 1967.

    – – –
    San Francisco has about 300 trolleybuses. Better than trying to haul heavy batteries up big hills.

    San Fran also uses diesel-electric hybrid buses…
    Because of their electric motor propulsion these buses can climb hills just as well as trolleybuses without being limited to the overhead grid.


  4. Bloke down the pub says:

    From the hazy memory banks of my distant youth, I think the last time I was on a trolley bus was in Bournemouth in about 1966. An abiding memory was of the conductor (no pun intended) getting out at the end of the trip to use a long pole to switch over to a different set of cables.
    Battery backup would these days make manoeuvering when unattached easier and we are all used to seeing bus lanes, which would keep the route clear for the trolley. If it’s not obvious already, I’m a fan.

  5. tom0mason says:

    Yes, Bloke down the pub,
    I too have memories of riding on Bournemouth trolley buses. I distinctly remember riding on the open top version that went from the town centre to the Westcliff. As a youth I loved to watch the sparks as the overhead connectors rattled over the wires.

    And also see https://wpehs.org.uk/trolleybuses-bournemouth for the history of the Bournemouth trolley bus service.

  6. Keitho says:

    They had them in Huddersfield when I was a kid. Quiet and clean.

  7. Russ Wood says:

    I believe Wellington, New Zealand successfully runs trolley buses.

  8. Gamecock says:

    Somebody is lying.

    ‘Yet half a century later – almost to the day – local councils now see electric public transport as an answer to congestion and air pollution.’

    We fixed air pollution decades ago.

  9. oldbrew says:

    Not an answer to congestion unless everything non-electric is banned from the congested areas. Even then it only works, if at all, until motorists are all forced into EVs.

    ‘levels of congestion in central London are close to pre-charging levels’

  10. Graeme No.3 says:

    The weight of batteries necessary to power any bus over a day’s journey would negate any speed off the mark. The cost of overhead lines should also be considered and as Dave Ward notes limits the flexibility of a classic trolley bus.
    Why not just enough battery capacity for a short trip? The trolley bus has to go from stop to stop, so a range of 2 miles should be adequate. The recharging rails at each stop could be short in length and rigidly fixed overhead. The bus could then recharge while passengers boarded.
    Even better might be a flywheel in place of a battery, as speed of charging / discharging could be greater, and much less affected by the temperature.

  11. gbaikie says:

    Why not have cars connect the bus power lines and have cars and buses have battery power.

    So the technology needed is related the connector to the bus or car or truck or whatever to electrical power lines.
    So bus, car, truck has connector the connector connect to. And it’s a standard connector that the connector connects to.
    So car, truck, bus goes somewhere, and a connector connects to car, truck, bus connector.
    And tricky part is whenever car, truck, bus needs to be disconnected, the connector disconnects and “goes home”.
    Or it’s a smart connector which can travel without the vehicle.

  12. Graeme No.3 says:

    The cost of installing and maintaining those overhead power lines, and the congestion that would result. Having a short length of rigid power rail at each bus stop would be cheaper and on-board storage would get the trolley bus to the next power point, and give it some freedom of movement around obstructions.
    Also, motorists would lose the “freedom of movement” they expect.

  13. Annie says:

    They had them in Reading. It was a sad day when the noisy, smelly, less comfortable single-decker buses replaced them

  14. gbaikie says:

    “Graeme No.3 says:
    January 11, 2020 at 11:02 pm
    The cost of installing and maintaining those overhead power lines, and the congestion that would result. ”

    The more use and longer the life time of use, effectively lows cost {or unit costs: One bus and/or car use per day/hour/year}. Or the cost of installing and maintaining those overhead power lines is part of the price paid to use the electrical power. Or question is how much does any user pay per Kw hour bought. So the party providing the electrical power for vehicles, will buy electrical power, charge more than it pays “wholesale” for electrical power and one include costs.
    So if wholesale cost is say 10 cents per kW hour {or $100 per MW hour] they question how do you have charge our customers. Such as, 2 cents added per kW hour. Or maybe it’s 5 or 10 cent added per kW hour.
    But generally speaking, the more customers [or more total revenue per year generated} you have, the cheaper the infrastructure cost becomes per kw hour of power sold to end users.

    There is a problem in terms of lack of competition. In situations where you have competition, the competition tends to lower the price to consumers {and provide different types of “products” available]. So, there could a tendency to have type thing “run by a government”.
    And would say the reason electrical buses failed in the first place is because they were run by a monopoly {or government} and free enterprise/ markets provided better products {ie, cars}.

    And as said, what I am suggesting would not easy to do, and governments are pretty incompetent.
    But if can make it competitive {somehow} someone might work out how it could be done.

    One aspect related to it, is one could have electrical vehicles traveling in tunnels- electrical is more suitable than combustion engines in regard to tunnels.
    So, governments could make easier for private sector to build tunnels, and whoever own a tunnel could also provide the electrical power “system” for the tunnel. And in terms of competition other parties could build their own tunnels.

  15. oldbrew says:

    Overhead lines can be used by any number of trolleybuses but electric buses need a massive battery pack each, which has a limited life. And battery buses struggle on hilly routes due to the weight of said battery pack.

    Maybe a hybrid – trolleybus with small battery pack – solves most problems? Dual-mode buses already exist…

    With the re-introduction of hybrid designs, trolleybuses are no longer tied to overhead wires.
    . . .
    This capability has become increasingly common in newer trolleybuses, particularly in North America and Europe, where the vast majority of new trolleybuses delivered since the 1990s are fitted with at least limited off-wire capability.


  16. kaykiser says:

    Dayton, Ohio USA still has electric buses that run on overhead power and do not require tracks like the old trolleys. Begun in 1888. The system is limited to an area around the downtown and uptown residential areas. For more distant locations, gasoline or natural gas buses are used to extend the reach.

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