Historical Background





In 1911, Leeds and Bradford were the first cities in the UK to introduce trolleybuses. The first Leeds trolleybus route ran from the city centre to Farnley. Later on, additional routes were added between Guiseley and Otley, and between Guiseley and Burley-in-Wharfedale. This was not part of a programme to replace trams, but because it was not practical to run trams on these routes. The service was run at a loss and continued to operate because the council regarded it as a feeder service to its tram network, and because it thought it important for the city to be linked its neighbours,1 Leeds scrapped its trolleybus system in 1928 because motor buses could be worked more cheaply as a result of their greater operational flexibility. Shortly before the trolleybuses were scrapped, a select committee of the House of Commons was told by a barrister the reasons why trolleybuses were no longer considered to be useful in Leeds:2

“The trolley vehicles run by the Corporation, he said, served their purpose for the time of the war, but the development of the motor-bus since that date had completely altered the position. Buses were able, from their greater mobility, to run at a cheaper figure per mile, and they had another very important advantage in providing a through service from point-to-point without change. The effect in this case was that people from the outlying districts, who, formerly, would quite gladly use the trolley vehicles in order to reach the Leeds tramways, now used the motor omnibuses, which carried them without change right into the city.

“It was found that lower fares were practically no attraction when people, by another form of vehicle, could be carried more expeditiously, and without the necessity of changing. It was found that people did not get out of the omnibuses at the city boundary to join the tramways, but went on”

In November 1947, in an address to the Leeds Publicity Club, William Vane Morland, manager of Leeds City Transport department, ruled out a return of trolleybuses to Leeds:3

“Leeds, with such a compact city centre and no sites available for proper turning places, is not an ideal place in which to run them.”

Bradford kept trolleybuses running until 1972, possibly because they coped well with the city’s hilly terrain.

By the start of the 1930s, tram rails across the UK and United States were wearing out. Many dated back to the time of horse-drawn trams. But this was the start of the Depression and there was very little money available to replace them. Trolleybuses were seen by some as a cheaper option that could make use of the existing overhead infrastructure. At this time, power stations in the UK and USA were owned either by private companies or by local authorities. Electricity departments put pressure on highways departments to choose trolleybuses as replacements for trams rather than motor buses as they wanted to re-coup the cost of their investment in power stations.4 The government favoured trolleybuses as a means of transport that would not be affected by oil shortages in the event of war. Then, after the war, they were seen as a means of conserving dollars. But as the 1950s progressed, the economy improved and the need to conserve dollars diminished, and oil supplies became more secure. The result was that transport departments were allowed to scrap their trolleybuses in favour of the more flexible and economical motor buses.

Trolleybuses were not missed. An editorial in the Glasgow Herald from 19675 states:

“Glasgow’s last trolley bus will run on May 28. This weekend sees the beginning of the end for the trolleys, with two of the three remaining services being replaced by motor buses. There must be few Glaswegians who view their impending departure with anything but relief. The trolleys have been with us since 1949, and in that time have managed to make themselves heartily disliked by motorists, pedestrians and passengers – probably too by the drivers and conductors who operate them. Trolleys are cumbersome vehicles. As an alternative to the old tramcars which did nothing to ease the flow of an increasing volume of traffic through the town, they could not be described as successful. Their size, and the frequency with which they “came off the wires” did not endear them to motorists. The silence of their approach made them a potential danger to unwary pedestrians and their jerky stopping and starting made boarding or leaving a trolley hazardous to all but the most nimble of passengers. The Corporation too must be glad to see them go. In 1951 it was estimated that the operating cost of Glasgow’s fleet of trolleys was the lowest of any form of transport in the country. But in recent years, the trolleys have been operating at a loss – in the year ending in May 1966 there was a deficit of over £200,000.

It is less than five years since Glasgow said farewell to the trams. But the trams were given a royal send-off. No enthusiast is likely to campaign for a convoy of trolley buses to escort the 105 to Queens Cross, in imitation of the procession which accompanied the last tram from Auchenshuggle. And if a place is accorded to a representative of the species in the transport museum, it is unlikely to cause much interest even to future generations of children who will never have seen a trolley on the roads. Museums throughout the world proudly exhibit some of Glasgow’s ancient trams. No one will clamour for an old trolley to exhibit. Trolley buses, unlike trams, are unloved.”

Glasgow’s attitude towards trolleybuses is also reported in Commercial Motor6 from the same time in an article entitled, “No Tears”:

“Remember the tens of thousands of Glaswegians who turned out in 1962 to say farewell to the last of their trams? Well,, one would thought there’d be at least a sparkle of interest in the last trip of the last of the Corporation’s trolleybuses. After all, they have given 18 years of service.

But no. Save for the stares of a few pedestrians the last trolley run was observed only by the members of the Scottish Tramway Museum Society it carried. Proof, perhaps, that the “silent death” trolleybuses never achieved the affectionate support given to the old tram “jam jars”.

According to Barry J Simpson in Urban Public Transport Today (1994)7

“The reasons for their limited success so far, has been the higher capital and operating costs compared with diesel buses and their inflexibility of route. The British trolleybus industry is now defunct and maintenance would be difficult. In short, the benefits they offer compared with the diesel bus are not seen as being of much significance.”

All the UK trolleybus systems were scrapped years ago. Only a handful remain in North America. The most recent system to be scrapped there was Edmonton’s in 2009. There are no longer any trolleybus systems in Australia, and New Zealand’s last remaining system is to be scrapped.

In 1999, Merseytravel’s application for a TWAO to install a guided trolleybus system in Liverpool was rejected.8 9

In 2001, Hong Kong considered introducing trolleybuses, but rejected the idea after carrying out a feasibility study.10

Transport for London considered re-introducing trolleybuses to London, but rejected the idea.11

Sigurd Grava states at page 436 of his book “Urban Transportation Systems” (The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc 2003):12

“Trolleybuses continue to operate, but their future as a general transit mode is not particularly bright. They do have a role in special situations, but the global trends are still negative. Nobody likes the overhead wires (except the copper manufacturers), and the problems of urban air quality are being attacked through means other than hoped-for massive switch of motorists to non-polluting transit. If and when hybrid buses reach a competitive stake in the market, which appears to be quite likely in the near future, the trolleybus may reach the status of cable cars – remaining in use in some places with special characteristics, but otherwise just being remembered with affection.”