Historical notes on Trolleybuses in London
Written by Ashley Bruce

The Historical Background
London came relatively late to trolleybuses, when London United introduced them in the Twickenham and Teddington area in 1931. They replaced old fashioned trams that had worn their track out. The experiment was very successful and hailed as such by the company and passengers alike. The first 60 trolleybuses were followed two years later by an exceptionally modern vehicle which set the standard not just for London but the rest of the country as well. Trolleybuses were providing cheap, quiet and clean transport for the residents of south west London. The only problem was radio interference as the trolleybuses passed and complaints led to fitting of special coils on the roofs of the vehicles that eliminated the problem.

Sketch of London Trolleybuses at Highgate Hill terminus The formation of the London Transport Passenger Board in 1933 saw the 61 trolleybuses of London United pass into new ownership. Their success had a major impact on future planning. London Transport was faced with a pressing need to modernise the tramway system, as well as upgrade and extend the Underground. It was considered at the time to be easier to replace the 2,500 trams with the newly-developed trolleybus [but after the 1939-45 war, with diesel-engined buses]. London's last conventional trams ran in 1952.

Last Tram Week ticket [1952] Since 1952, there has been a huge increase in the availability and use of private cars in London, and new roads and traffic management schemes have not kept pace with the potential demand. Public opposition has grown on environmental and social grounds to proposals for major road schemes through already built-up areas, which would in any case be hugely expensive.

The Current Position
Today, in conurbations worldwide, buses are not perceived by passengers to be an attractive, reliable and high quality means of travel, mainly because of delays caused by traffic congestion and the relatively poorer ride quality of buses as against rail vehicles. Underground railways are extremely expensive and can only be justified where there is a prospect of large numbers of passengers being carried. Alternative ways of meeting the need for a public transport system which is more reliable than the bus, but cheaper and quicker to build than tramway systems, are now in operation around the world and, of these, modern trolleybus systems have become the most favoured.

Of approximately 350 trolleybus systems currently operating around the world many have undertaken extensive new investment programmes and extensions in the last few years. 40 completely new systems have been built in the last dozen years and include:

Over 10 new systems have opened in Russia, 11 in Rumania, and plans have been formulated for Brighton, London and Watford in the UK. Major extensions have been built in Zurich and Quito. Hong Kong is currently examining the introduction of trolleybuses and 200 are about to be ordered in Vancouver.

Artist's impression of a new breed of Trolleybus for the Uxbridge Road
  Artist's impression of a new breed of Trolleybus
for the Uxbridge Road. Click on picture for an enlarged version.

Features of a Modern Trolleybus
What are sometimes known as "Tbuses" use the latest technology and can run in single or articulated units in the middle of streets, in pedestrian precincts or on their own private way. A single articulated trolleybus can carry up to 200 people - two and a half times the capacity of a typical bus - and is designed to be accessible to all sections of the community, including mothers with pram's and small children, shoppers with trolleys, the elderly and people with disabilities. The stops are seldom more than 600 metres apart. With segregated roadway and priority at traffic signals, there are no hold-ups in traffic jams, and the service is safe and reliable.

Many European cities already run trolleybuses on streets and through city centres. Trolleybuses do not cause pollution in the street to damage the urban environment and the vehicles are extremely quiet with fast, smooth acceleration and quick and safe braking. They can negotiate tight turns and climb steep gradients. Trolleybus systems can be designed to complement all urban surroundings, and this flexibility is increasingly attractive to town planners, who are turning to trolleybus technology to ease the problems of urban traffic congestion.

Trolleybus systems are relatively cheap to build - cheaper than tram systems and with virtually all the advantages. The current UK average cost is 300k - 400k per kilometre [500k - 640k per mile], including overhead, vehicles, etc.; about 5 - 10 per cent of the price of a tramway system. However, they are more expensive than bus systems and a careful examination of the business case for a scheme has to be taken before a decision to proceed can be made.

London Transport and Trolleybuses
London Transport has been studying the development of trolleybuses for a number of years, and now has a team dedicated to bringing the advantages of modern electric street transport to London.

Future Developments in London
In June 1995, London Transport published "New Ideas for Public Transport in outer London" [now out of print] which set out the case for improved public transport facilities in over 40 areas, involving intermediate mode schemes which bridge the gap between heavy rail and conventional bus services. In addition to light rail, these modes could include electrically-powered and alternative fuel vehicles; segregated and guided busways; and people-movers.

A detailed analysis of nine of these schemes has now been completed and work on developing these ideas is being carried on by various parts of London Transport.

In central London, London Transport is a partner with local authorities, private firms and the Government Office for London in the Cross River Partnership, which is dedicated to improving facilities on both banks of the river and to providing better cross-river links. One of the most promising of these developments is a proposal to develop a trolleybus, a high quality surface link from Stockwell and Peckham in south London, via Waterloo, Kingsway and Euston to Camden and Kings Cross in the north. Active development work on the scheme is being continued by the partners, led by London Transport. The proposed layout of the scheme has been developed and consultants are examining the demand for such a new transport link, its impact upon general road traffic in central London and its environmental impact. Further development work and public consultation will continue over the next year.

Dr Sue Atkinson, Director of Public Health for London, has been on London Live Radio to announce a report in which is stated that London air pollution kills more people than road traffic accidents. In 12 months studied 226 people were killed in RTAs, but it is estimated by the experts commissioned for the report that 380 deaths were "brought forward" by air pollution. These were people particularly who suffered respiratory problems made worse by pollution.

Of ways for individuals to reduce these affects, Dr Atkinson mentioned more walking and cycling [lower exposure to pollution than in cars]. However, not mentioned were trolleybuses with their zero exhaust emissions which would help to overall pollution and, unlike a tramway, don't introduce additional hazards for cyclists by slots along roads.

If only there could be some integrated thinking by planners of transport and health.

Revised 27th November 2004