Memories of Maidstone's Trolleybuses

From: "Irvine Bell" <>

I would be VERY surprised if the usual [British] trolley wire polarity wire nearest the curb negative - was any different in Maidstone. In any case, as traditional trolleybus electrical equipment was not polarity sensitive [amazing how often this topic surfaces - probably due to experience with model trains], that alone would not matter.

However, the relative position of the power pedals would. I understand that Hastings, and maybe one or two other British trolleybus systems, did have the pedals reversed from the otherwise usual order i.e. power left foot, brake right foot. The only Maidstone trolleybus I have driven has the conventional layout. I presume that operation under the Maidstone wires would be done with the permission and co-operation of Maidstone Corporation, who probably provided the driver - who by the sound of it had rather a shock when he found out the hard way that the pedals were reversed!

If the vehicle shot off backwards initially, it would have been because the 'reverser' would have been mis-set. Most trolleybuses have the 'reverser', actually the reverse-off-forward control in the form of a fore and aft lever to the left of the driver's seat and connected to the master controller which is usually under the seat. The lever works in the obvious way - forward to move forward, mid position off and backward to go backward.

I did have a problem with one [older] Derby trolleybus at Dudley. The reverser was more like a tram car controller and on top of the main contactor box and confusing to those unfamiliar with it. I nearly set off backwards and I saw another driver who did. I guess that the Hastings vehicle had something unusual about its reverser. A guess might be that the master controller had to be physically reversed under the driver's seat because of the reversed operation of the pedals and that the normal operation of the reversing handle was changed.

Concerning Maidstone polarity, a clue might be obtainable from pictures of the overhead. In systems with a grounded [earth potential] negative wire, the section insulators every half mile had only to be on the positive wire. In systems with fully floating overhead, insulators had to be in both wires.

From: "Ian D Smith" <>

As far as the wiring is concerned I am almost certain that the legislation that enabled the Trolleybus systems in this country meant that the negative wire had to be placed next to the pavement, i.e. on the left in the direction of travel. Also there where strict limits on the minimum height above the road surface, and minimum distance allowed between the wiring and other structures. Where clearances were sub standard such as on low overline bridges, the Ministry of Transport used to get attacks of the vapours and dispensations and close inspections were required before the Ministry of Transport would give approval. London Transport used to box the lines in wooden troughing to protect them. On one or two systems the lines came down to nearly roof height and the booms had to travel to one side almost alongside the top deck.

As for the pedals London Transport had their pedals reversed and they where boldly inscribed 'P' and 'B' for Power [left foot] and Brake [right foot], two of the reasons behind this was for when the trolleybus drivers pulled away they could apply a notch of power first then release the brake for smooth start, and secondly it was sometimes needed to operate automatic frogs by drawing current, the pedal arrangement meant they could both power and brake at the same time thereby drawing current but not necessarily accelerating to much, especially useful in traffic. Right foot braking was retained as most people's right foot is the dominant one best suited to braking, try braking with your left foot in a car and you'll see what I mean!

Another oddity was that Trolleybus systems where technically considered to be a cross between a light railway and a tramway system and were built under an Act of Parliament which in effect excluded the trolleybus from the normal road licensing laws that applied to motor buses and the like, and thus in today's terms they did not need an ordinary MoT nor road tax, as they had their own versions. London Trolleybuses carried large white license plates on the rear platform tramway style as did many other systems.

From: "Tony Hocking" <>

Re the last paragraph of Ian's that appears above. The comment about the legislation is true, in part at least. The original lines and the extensions at Maidstone were authorised under the Light Railways Act 1896. This was a cheaper arrangement than the preceding Tramways Act which necessitated a detailed and expensive Act of Parliament for each system or line built. Under the Light Railways Act the Board of Trade [originally, but later the Ministry of Transport] could issue a Light Railway Order, after due consultation with interested parties [usually in the form of a public enquiry], enabling a railway, tramway or trolleybus line to be built, and after inspection, to be operated. Maidstone's Bishop's Way diversion [away from Mill Street] may have been the last time that a Light Railway Order was issued for a trolleybus line in the UK.

It is true that in the very early days trolleybuses did not need to be registered as road vehicles but the anomaly was soon spotted and they had registration numbers just like any other buses. They didn't need an MOT [which in any case only came in the late 50s or early 60s] but they did need a certificate of fitness [as buses still do]. They also had a tax disc [though whether this was at the same rate as motor buses I don't know]. I was told by an inspector at Maidstone that it was the practice to send a trolleybus which needed a repair, but which couldn't for the time being be dealt with, to Loose tram shed for storage. At the same time it would be de licensed in order to save money. Later when the trolley was required at Barming for the repair to be made it would be pulled out of the shed, hooked up to the wires and driven through the town under its own power on the basis that the police would never think of checking a corporation trolleybus's tax disc!

The white plate on the platform of the London trolleys was a Metropolitan Police identity plate similar to that still carried by London black cabs. I was not aware that this arrangement applied to any other system and cannot remember seeing them at Maidstone, Hastings, Brighton, Wolverhampton or Reading.

[Added after first publication] I forgot to add that in France for years trolleybuses did not need to be registered and operated with just the fleet number as an ID. I don't know if this is still the case.

From: "Ian D Smith" <>

I very interesting string of comments. My contact [senior electrical employee] started with Maidstone Corporation in the days of trams and should have retired before 1965 but stayed until all the electrical work was finished. He died many years ago, so cannot find any more information now.

As regards Hastings trolleys, can anyone in Walsall or Bradford make any comment on the polarity, etc.?

On tax discs, Boroline Maidstone was actually fined for not having tax discs displayed on buses used from Greenwich to Euston on LRT contract. They were stolen by passengers.

From: "Bruce Lake" <>


As far as I know, this is true [note below re:French registrations]. It is also true of many countries - trams didn't used to be registered, and trolleybuses, as replacement trackless trams didn't either. Most countries eventually tightened up on this, but I know that some STILL don't require trolleybuses to be registered, or only require a simple ID plate which may or may not be the fleet number. However, I haven't got a list of these - perhaps someone will.


The negative was always on the pavement side, as this was the wire nearest to Earth potential. The positive would have the full 550v [or whatever] and was placed furthest away from pedestrians on the basis that if the wires came down this would give the most protection. In a floating system [ie. -275v and +275v], this doesn't matter as much, but the convention is the same, I think. Incidentally, this is also why the +ve breaker is always the furthest away from the driver's head in the cab.


As far as I know, ALL trolleybuses in this country [not just LT] had the power pedal on the left and the brake on the right. The right foot on the brake argument is probably correct. I was never sure why the power was on the left, other than to give the left foot something to do! Motor bus drivers rostered to a trolleybus often blew the aforementioned breakers when they got in the cab and habit dictated that they put the 'clutch' straight down! It is unlikely that the left and right pedals were there so that drivers could draw power through electric frogs by braking and accelerating at the same time, as ALL trolleybuses fitted with electric brakes [ie. most from the mid-30's onwards] had an interlock which dropped out the power as soon as the brakes were applied. Can't have the motor current passing through braking resistors with the power still applied!

From: "Kevin Brown" <>

Trolleybuses in Edmonton [Canada] are not licensed [do not carry license plates] as they do not fit into the definition of a motor vehicle under the Alberta Motor Vehicles Act. They fit into the category of a rail vehicle.

From: "Irvine Bell" <>

Not sure I would agree with the phrase "London Transport had their pedals reversed" - left hand power and right hand brake were the norm on traditional British trolleybuses. Hastings were unusual in having things the other way round. I have driven London, Newcastle, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Nottingham, Bradford, Bournemouth, Cardiff and Maidstone trolleybuses and observed drivers on Reading, Glasgow, Teeside and Huddersfield trolleybuses. All had the same pedal arrangements as London.

Never been quite sure why traditional British trolleybuses mostly went for left foot power and right foot brake. I suspect it was a hang over from the tramway tradition of left hand power, right hand for the hand brake. Which was itself probably a hang over from horse tramway practice of left hand power [i.e. the reins], right hand brakes. Also I believe the trolleybus arrangement evolved before the now conventional motor vehicle arrangement had finally settled down. Quite a few early motor vehicles had the power pedal in the middle.

Manchester's Metrolink trams continue the tradition of driving with the left hand, although power and brakes are on the one 'stick'.

On a point of detail perhaps implied above, unless I have misunderstood it, "could apply a notch of power first then release the brake for smooth start" and "needed to operate automatic frogs by drawing current, the pedal arrangement meant they could both power and brake at the same time thereby drawing current". You can't do this with the foot brake on a traditional British trolleybus as brakes and power are interlocked with brakes having priority. That is to say, if you press the foot brake pedal, it cuts power off.

You have to apply the first power notch against the hand brake when starting and drive the bus under power against the hand brake when trying to operate automatic frogs. If you are tying to steer at the same time, it can get interesting!

Trolleybus legislation was indeed a mishmash. Legally, they were not 'motor vehicles' as they were 'trolley' vehicles defined as propelled by an 'external source of power'. Some road vehicle legislation applied to them and some not, depending on whether it was drafted in terms of 'motor' vehicles or not.

From: "Ian D Smith" <>

Just another thought concerning the vex question concerning the Power and Brake pedals on Trolleybuses.

I have asked around and no-one at all seems to be able to come up with any particular solution. However having thought about it, there may possibly be a more prosaic answer, in that the Trolleybuses predecessors, the trams had the left hand of the driver on the power controller, and electric brake if fitted, and the right hand on the hand brake and/or air brakes. Some very early trolleys were said to have a hand operated lever for power using the left hand [in which case steering them must have been fun] and some others initially had rheostatic brakes tied in with the Power pedal [even more fun].

So perhaps the left foot power layout simply became the de facto norm by default, rather than through any conscious decision.

From: "Irvine Bell" <>

The issue of pedals in trolleybuses seems to be a hardy annual!

I don't know how the usual but not universal British layout of left pedal power, right foot brake came about. I assume, as the writer below seems to, that it was a logical progression from the way trams were driven and the way early trolleybuses used tram control equipment [drum controllers] until contactor control came in around 1930. British electric trams usually had power under the left hand and mechanical brakes under the right hand. Before them, horse trams had a similar arrangement - reins in left hand, right hand for brakes.

Moscow trolleybuses, I discovered during my visit this summer use left foot for brakes and right foot for power. Possibly their arrangements might be descended from the reversed power and brake arrangements compared with British trams that I suppose early Moscow trams could have had.

Putting a rheostatic brake on the same pedal as the mechanical brakes is a simple logical, but not universal arrangement. The Swiss trolleybus that has visited Dudley, has a separate, third, pedal for rheostatic brakes. Left foot is air brake, right foot is power and the middle pedal, operated by the right foot is rheostatic with a not very confidence giving and better ignored air brake at the end of its travel.

Due to the way regenerative braking is implemented with DC motors and contactor control, regenerative braking really has to be on the power pedal. The power pedal becomes more of a speed control pedal, setting a 'balancing' speed for the motor/vehicle. Below the balancing speed the motor motors, above it regenerates. So when a vehicle is notched up and running fast, easing back on the power pedal reduces the balancing speed and brings in regeneration until the vehicle speed drops to the balancing speed.

Regenerative equipment was popular with some British operators pre-war but caused many problems. Post war it dropped out of favour. London's pre-war trolleybus fleet [like 1201] was generally equipped with both regenerative and rheostatic brakes. Not sure what the Diddlers had. The Qs were rheostatic only. The Bournemouth trolleybus that visited Dudley had regenerative only when new. At Dudley, it had no effective electric brake.

Post war, London drivers were trained to avoid using the regenerative brakes. The technique is never to notch back but lift straight off, never giving time for regeneration to build up.

Modern 'electronic' control systems get round the problems with contactor control and permit blended regenerative and rheostatic braking on the same pedal as the air [or hydraulic] brakes. In line with modern diesel buses, two pedals, left brake [but operated by the right foot] and right power seems to be usual. My impression is that North American vehicles used the two pedal [automatic] diesel bus arrangement from way back.

From: "David P."

I went to the Maidstone Boys' Technical School [as it was called then] every day on a trolley bus, getting on at either Grove Road or Mangravet, depending on the whim of the day [I lived in-between!] and getting off at Milton Street, if I remember correctly. The service was discontinued just before I left, the Atlantean blue and cream diesel monsters being introduced in tandem with the existing trolleys for a while.

The main excitement of the day was if the arms came off, which quite often happened around the Mill Street/High Street sharp turn, [That was before Bishop's Way was built] I seem to remember a similar incident happening at the Loose Road/Sutton Road junction when the conductor got off and changed the "points" by way of a handle on one of the support poles for a Loose-bound vehicle and somehow didn't get it quite right, with an almighty clatter and arms flailing everywhere!

You may know that the original tram depot in Tonbridge Road, opposite the Cherry Tree pub was subsequently used for the trolley depot, and following the trolley closure, the building was then used as a coachwork's for some years, and it was the only place in town where you could still see a small section of tram rails just inside the entrance. The site has recently been re-developed into an apartment block but the developers [thankfully] have seen fit to retain that section, which is excellent. I thought that would be lost for ever.

I have seen one of the originals at Sandtoft, and it certainly brought back some memories - the clacking and ticking coming from the bowels of the beast under acceleration; the original fare notice; the destination boards - happy days!

From: "John Knox" <>

My name is John Knox from Belfast which had a very large fleet of trolley buses from 1938 until the 1960s. I was interested with the article about some trolley buses and the supply polarity i.e. Inside wire or outside wire as positive and the other as negative. All trolley buses have dual polarity and it matters not a jot about which is positive the inside or outside wire.

An interesting test was tried out on a particular hilly route still using trams by temporarily transforming one of the tram over head wires to negative and running a loaded trolleybus up and down the road,this was performed to test loading. Naturally at night when normal tram service was finished. I had a friend who was the chief electrician on that test and it was he who filled me in on the polarity question.

Trolleybuses should never have been scraped as they are much more environmentally friendly and inexpensive to repair.

From: "Tony Hocking" <>

The Hastings trolleys were towed up the Hastings - Maidstone main road behind BRS lorries, reputedly taking shoddy waste to Bradford for processing. When the first one arrived at the Loose terminus it was decided to put the poles up and drive it through the town to the depot at Barming since this would avoid the otherwise awkward convoy travelling through the town centre which included some awkwardly tight bends. Fine, good idea you might think. Except that the polarity on the Hastings overhead was the reverse of the usual [which was positive inside, negative outside]. That wasn't the only problem. In the Hastings buses the right hand pedal was the brake and the left hand the accelerator, the reverse [again] of the Maidstone arrangement. The sequence of events, by all accounts, went something like this:-

  1. Poles up on overhead
  2. Indicator lamp shows current available
  3. Driver applies power by depressing the accelerator [but this is actually the brake]
  4. Driver realises there is some problem and applies the brake [which is in truth the accelerator]
  5. Vehicle shoots off backwards!
  6. Panic all round and delivery continues behind BRS lorry, awkward corners and all!

PS. One thing I forgot to tell you was related to me by one of the inspectors. The original 1928 Ransomes trolleys had a tramcar controller laid athwartways under the floor of the driving cab. This rather crude arrangement was operated by a ratchet arrangement from the footpedal. Being a ratchet it only worked in the acceleration mode. Application of the brake cancelled everything and the ratchet could be reset by kicking a plunger on the floor. Many was the time a trolley 'broke down' at Loose terminus for the repair crew from Barming to establish that the driver had either forgotten about or mishandled the reset. Presumably strong language was used to ensure the poor driver did not forget again.