Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Brisbane's Trolleybuses, A Bygone Era

A trolleybus (also known as trolley bus, trolley coach, trackless trolley, trackless tram or simply trolley) is an electric bus powered by two overhead wires, from which it draws electricity using two trolley poles.

Trolleybus travelling up Elizabeth Street near Queens Park.

The trolleybus is essentially a bus driven by an electric motor instead of a diesel or petrol engine and with the electricity supplied to the bus from an external source, the electricity does not come from batteries or fuel cells carried on the bus. Two poles are required in order to accommodate the return current, which cannot pass to the ground as in the case of an electric tram (also called a streetcar) since trolleybuses use rubber tires, rather than steel wheels on rail.

The usual method of supplying the electricity is to suspend wires (trolley wires) above the roadway and to mount on the roof of the bus a pair of swivelling booms (sometimes called trolleypoles) which reach up to the wires. The bus does not need to travel directly below the wires as does a tram but can move quite a distance to either side. For example on the Story Bridge in Brisbane which has 3 traffic lanes in each direction, the trolley wires were mounted over the centre lane and the trolleybuses could travel in any of the lanes because the booms would swivel and still reach the wires.

Trolleybus coming off the Story Bridge.

Early in March 1947 the Brisbane City Council placed a order for 30 trolley bus chassis from Sunbeam Trolleybus Company in Wolverhampton in England.

Shortage of materials in post-war Britian meant that extensive delays occurred in delivery of the chassis with the first delivery not arriving by sea until 1950.

Trolleybus in the CBD travelling along George Street.

When trolleybuses were introduced into Brisbane in 1951, diesel and petrol engines of sufficient power to drive a bus were large - so large in fact that they were usually mounted inside the bus beside the driver. In this position the noise generated by the engine reverberated throughout the whole of the passenger area of the bus creating quite an unpleasant environment for the travellers. In contrast, an electric motor of equivalent or greater power was sufficiently small to mount under the floor of the bus and it emitted no noise or fumes. In fact the only sound made by a trolleybus of that era was the swishing noise of the tyres on the road surface. Because they were so quiet, they gained the nickname "Whispering Death" in some cities because pedestrians could not hear them approaching. Also at that time, all petrol and diesel fuel was imported into Australia and the foreign exchange implications were considerable in the post Second World War environment. In contrast, electricity was generated from locally mined coal and had no impact on the balance of trade.

Another technical advantage of trolleybuses is that electric motors develop their greatest torque or pulling power when first starting off- this makes trolleybuses eminently suitable for operation in hilly areas....and electric motors require very little maintenance compared with diesel or petrol engines.

The Committee approved a route from Prospect Terrace via the Valley and Story Bridge to Stanley Bridge. This was highly unusual as the route did not pass through the central city area which was then the centre of business activity.

However, "The Valley" (officially Fortitude Valley) was an extremely important retail precinct - the largest and most concentrated non-CBD shopping centre in Australia at the time. It is located just over 1 km north of the CBD. Three very large department stores, four large variety stores, a huge furniture store and many smaller traders were concentrated in two short blocks of Brunswick St straddling Wickham St. with all tram services except the Edward St lines serving the area. A suburban railway station (Brunswick St) was also provided. Thus in a small way the selected route anticipated the modern trend of bus services centred on large suburban shopping malls.

Tram in foreground with trolleybus in rear in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley.

The Cavendish Road route was unique in that it was the only conversion of a "main" tram route to trolleybus operation in Brisbane. The line was only single track with 2 passing loops between the terminus and the junction with the Belmont line. No duplication had ever been done nor had any track been re-laid in concrete. When the Mt. Gravatt tramline had been extended in 1951 from Holland Park to Mt. Gravatt, the track was laid using grooved rail in mass concrete and a story circulated that this used grooved rail which had been acquired much earlier for duplication work in Cavendish Road. (All major track work since 1933 had largely used plain railway rail in mass concrete). There is thus some suspicion that there was a long held plan to abandon or convert the Cavendish Rd tramline.

The conversion itself was difficult as the edges of the roadway had to be re-built and the trolleybus overhead erected while the tram service continued to operate. Then the tram track was removed and the centre of the roadway rebuilt while the trolleybus service operated! The inbound trolleybus wires at the junction were constructed above the tram wires, separated from them by wooden boards. On the first morning of trolleybus operation in November, 1955, buses had to coast through the intersection with their booms lowered until the tram wires were removed. In December, 1956 the service was extended to the final terminus at Elgar Street. The conversion itself was difficult as the edges of the roadway had to be re-built and the trolleybus overhead erected while the tram service continued.

There are several reasons for the considerable decline in the popularity of trolleybuses worldwide. The first was a great improvement in diesel engine technology but the main ones are economic. The cost of erecting and maintaining overhead wires is not necessary with diesel buses and is not fully offset by savings in engine maintenance or fuel costs. It is also much easier to establish or vary a route as a diesel bus can simply drive along a different road!

Although new vehicles entered service in 1960, some ominous clouds were gathering on the horizon. Public transport usage generally was declining rapidly as more and more people purchased cars. To accommodate the extra cars, a one-way street system was introduced which required the diversion of the uphill Gardens to Gregory Tce service by a more circuitous route via Alice, Albert & Turbot Streets. Economy was sought by removing conductors from this route in July 1960. This slowed the service as passengers now had to queue to enter the bus. Use of the centre and rear doors ceased at this time and this further inconvenienced passengers.

The poor economy of operating the small Milton depot (which housed some diesel buses as well as trolleybuses) led to its closure on weekends and evenings with all services provided by diesel buses from other depots.

However, the total integration of the trolleybus power supply with that of the trams inevitably meant the fates of the two were intertwined, and when abandonment was finally officially announced on 21st June 1968, it was for all electrically powered transport to be replaced with diesel buses.

Extract from local newspaper July 2007.

A new CBD plan has recently been unveiled by Premier Peter Beattie. It includes five new pedestrian, cycle bridges and a light-rail system. More than 140km of tram track once criss-crossed Brisbane from Queen and Adelaide Streets to then outer suburbs like New Farm, West End, through to Mt Gravatt and Chermside. This all ended in 1969 with the motor car and suburban sprawl.

The State Government's last attempt to re-introduce light rail in 2000. However, it was quashed amid concerns about the impact on Brisbane's CBD. And here it is again on the agenda with Premier Peter Beattie's announcement that his government would build a network from South Brisbane to New Farm and possibly Bowen Hills at a cost estimated at $250 million.

Some have said that the trams and trolleybuses should not have been removed from the road system, and now it appears that trams maybe making a comeback (see extract above) but proposals like this have been put forward a number of other times but have never seen the light of day.
I think this could be a good idea but will believe it when I see the trams once again plying our streets. Melbourne still have trams running throughout the city and Adelaide only has one tourist tram that runs from the city to the seaside resort of Glenelg Beach.

Some text taken with thanks from "A Short History of the Brisbane Trolleybus System" book I purchased when I visited the Brisbane Tramway Museum.
I will do a post on the Museum next with photos I took during my visit.


Peter said...

Very interesting Wazza, some of the old photos especially, LOTS of Holdens, a maze of overhead wires and even an Amoco service station.
An amazing transformation of a city's transport system in a fairly short time.

Lee said...

A wonderful, informative post, Wazza...great old pics, too. :)

Jim said...

Very nice, Warren! I like those old electric trolleys. European cities still use them a lot.
Houston has ONE light rail route. It has been very political getting it in. It seems the bus lobby is winning most of the time.

I wish we had ANY KIND of mass transit into Houston. It takes over an hour to get there, and sometime 2 1/2 hours to come back during rush hours.
I'm ready for the museum posting, I will be in Scotland in the middle of September.
For now until October I'm semi-retired from blogging. I only run my photo place blog, but seem to be posting quite frequently on it.

JunieRose2005 said...

This was very interesting to read- and the pictures were great!

Thanks for posting this, Wazza.


LZ Blogger said...

Actually when I grew up in Southern California, they had those same electric buses in Long Beach, Calif. They actually still have them up in San Francisco where my mother in law lives. ~ jb///