Trolleybuses in Leeds

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Trolleybuses in Leeds
A double-decker trolleybus in 1912 (courtesy of Leodis)
Trolleybus Network
Opened 20 June 1911
Closed 26 July 1928
Operator Leeds Tramways
Route 1 City Square to Moor Top, Farnley
Route 2 Guiseley to Burley in Wharfedale
Route 3 Guiseley to Otley

In 1911, Leeds became the first city in the UK to operate a trolleybus service. It was introduced to appease residents who had been asking for the tram service to be extended to Farnley.[1] The system was scrapped in 1928 because motor buses could be worked more cheaply as a result of their greater operational flexibility.[2] As the years passed, other cities followed Leeds’ example so that today, no UK city operates trolleybuses. The last UK trolleybus system to close was Bradford’s in 1972. But now, almost 90 years after Leeds scrapped its trolleybus system, we may have come full circle, with the possibility of trolleybuses returning to the city.[3]

Leeds Trolleybuses

The trolleybus system chosen by Leeds had been developed by the German engineer Max Schiemann (1866-1933) and his company Max Schiemann & Co. The first passenger-carrying trolleybus line to use the Schiemann system was the 2.5km long Biela Valley line near Dresden in Saxony, which opened on the 10th July 1901 and continued until September 1904. A more advanced system was trialled on a 1.7km route which opened at Mulhausen in Alsace in May 1908.[4] The decision by Leeds to use the Schiemann system was made following a visit in 1909 by a deputation from the Leeds Tramways Committee to Mulhausen. The deputation also visited Vienna to inspect the Cedes-Stoll system and Milan to inspect the Filovia system.[5]

The Schiemann system’s trolley poles (pantographs) were able to maintain contact with the overhead lines because they were spring-loaded.[6] This is the system still in use today. The trolley poles on earlier versions of Schiemann’s trolleybuses were able to swivel and were arranged consecutively rather than next to one another, and were of different lengths. This enabled vehicles to reverse at any point on the route without the need for the turnaround loops required by later trolleybuses.[7] The Schiemann system is generally considered to be the first successful commercial trolleybus system.[8]

In 1908 the British company Railless Electric Traction Company Limited (RET) acquired a licence to operate and develop the Schiemann system.[9] On the 25th September 1909, the company carried out trials at the Hendon depot of Metropolitan Electric Tramways in London.[10] In 1911, further trials took place in Bradford and Leeds. On the 20th June 1911, the first UK trolleybus service was inaugurated when the Lord Mayor of Leeds, William Middlebrook drove a trolleybus from Thirsk Row, off Wellington Street, to Farnley.[11] The second trolleybus was driven by the Deputy Lord Mayor Frederick James Kitson, the grandson of James Kitson, founder of the Airedale Foundry in Hunslet. The 8 mile round trip between Farnley and the city centre took 45 minutes. The first trolleybus route had four trolleybuses and ran from City Square to Moor Top, via Lower Wortley and Farnley. Two additional routes were added in 1915; between Guiseley and Otley, and between Guiseley and Burley-in-Wharfedale.[12] The trolleybus service was run by Leeds Tramways. It used trolleybuses built by the Railless Electric Traction Company fitted with Siemens engines. The company had a small factory at Balm Road in Hunslet.

The trolleybuses used in 1911 were single-deckers. Double-decker trolleybuses were introduced in 1921. These had a carrying capacity of 59 passengers, with 28 being carried on the lower deck and 31 on the upper deck, which was enclosed.[13] The trolleybuses were known as "railless cars," "trackless cars" and "trackless trams."

A Leeds trolleybus pictured circa 1911 (image courtesy of Yorkshire Post Newspapers)

The trolleybus service was used on routes where it was not practical to run trams. Although the service ran at a loss, it continued because the council regarded it as a feeder service to its tram network, and in order to link the city to its neighbours.[14] The trolleybus system was scrapped in 1928 for reasons given by a barrister employed by the council to a select committee of the House of Commons.[15]

“The trolley vehicles run by the Corporation 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”

Addressing the Leeds Publicity Club In November 1947, the manager of Leeds City Transport department, William Vane Morland, ruled out any possibility of a return of trolleybuses to Leeds: [16]

“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.”


In 1974, the responsibility for public transport in Leeds passed from Leeds City Transport to the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (also known as Metro). Between 1980 and 1990, Metro made several unsuccessful attempts to win government funding to re-introduce trolleybuses first to Bradford, and then between Leeds and Bradford. Metro called the scheme “Electrobus.” When the final attempt to win government funding failed, Metro decided to go ahead without government funding. But when a private bus operator announced a plan to open a diesel bus service along the proposed trolleybus route, Metro quietly dropped its Electrobus plan.[2]

New Generation Transport

The current Leeds trolleybus scheme is called “New Generation Transport” (NGT).[3] The scheme results from the failure in 2005 of a tram scheme called ‘Supertram' to win government funding. Costing an estimated £250 million, NGT would have twenty trolleybuses running on a single route between Holt Park in the north, the city centre, and Stourton in the south. The service would also link park and rides at Lawnswood and Stourton. There would be no express service between the park and rides and the city centre as trolleybuses can't easily overtake one another. Because the trolleybus stops would be located apart from other bus stops, the scheme has been criticised for failing to provide an integrated transport system. Following a six month long public inquiry in 2014, a decision on whether or not to allow the scheme to go ahead will be made by transport minister Lord Ahmad either late in 2015 or early in 2016.


  1. "When Leeds transport was like riding on the back of a pig" Yorkshire Post 7 October 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 Soper, James. "Leeds Transport," Volume 5, 1974 to 1986. Leeds Transport Historical Society, 2011, p. 1808.
  3. 3.0 3.1 New Generation Transport
  4. Crosley A.S. "Early Development of The Railless Electric Trolleybus." Transactions of the Newcomen Society 1960; 33(1), p.93-111
  5. Soper J Leeds Transport Vol.2, 1902-1931. Leeds Transport Historical Society, 1996
  6. Vuchic VR, "Urban Transit Systems and Technology" John Wiley & Sons 2007, p. 30
  7. Geschichte des Oberleitungsbusses
  8. "Trolley-wire Electrobuses" Commercial Motor 5 November 1908
  9. "Auf oder Abgehängt? – Die Entwicklung im Obus-Sektor" Jürgen Lehmann, The Development in the Trolley Bus Sector
  10. "Electric-trolley Motorbuses." Commercial Motor 7 October 1909, page 16
  11. "First outing for city's 'trackless cars'" Yorkshire Evening Post 23 June 2007
  12. "Where trolley buses went to end of the line" Yorkshire Evening Post 30 June 2007
  13. "A Double-Deck Trolleybus for Leeds" Commercial Motor 20 September 1921, Page 12
  14. Yorkshire Post 23.3.27
  15. Yorkshire Evening Post 29.3.27
  16. Yorkshire Post 7.11.47