Flashback Friday: Take a trolley ride

By: Gordon Lowe

Gordon Lowe reflects on the age of the trolley bus and the benefits which might suit the modern, carbon-conscious society

Flashback Friday: Take a trolley ride
Trolley buses served the people of Kogarah, Rockdale and Sans Souci faithfully for more than 22 years

I met up with an acquaintance of mine who, like myself, is a self-confessed bus aficionado. During our conversation it came to light that this particular gentleman recalled catching the trolley bus to school every day from the Brisbane suburb of Coorparoo.

Trolley buses? What are they? Most younger readers of ABC probably don’t have the faintest idea of what a trolley bus is as these types of buses have faded away into the transport industry history books.   Now my acquaintance is very much an advocate of the trolley bus, so I asked him a few questions as to what the appeal was.

He vividly recalled his schoolboy days and catching the trolley bus (it was a single decker, by the way). What appealed to him most was the fact the trolley bus appeared to glide along the roads with hardly any noise other than a slight hum coming from the big electric motor. My acquaintance recalled reading my story in the May 2008 edition of ABC and the impact of the Sydney double-decker bus and my "campaign to bring them back on the streets". "I agree with you," he said. "It makes sense, the double-deckers had a small footprint and could carry over 70 people — much better than, say, banana buses!" Now that got me thinking.

Maybe our forefathers got it right and the trolley bus was a great idea. It certainly warranted further research. In the dim recesses of my mind I remembered somewhere that in Sydney I was now on track to write a story about the trolley bus. The more I researched, the more enthusiastic I became. I quickly telephoned my acquaintance who offered further information on the Brisbane trolley bus network, but that could well be the basis of another story!


How it works

For the benefit of younger readers, the trolley bus basically looked like any other bus except it had two long poles on the roof that picked up electricity from an overhead wiring system. In fact, trolley bus principles were indeed very similar to electric trams,  with the exception that the two trolley bus poles picked up the current (both positive and negative), while the tram would pick up electricity via one overhead wire with earthing taking place by the actual steel rails set in the roadway.

Most trolley buses that operated on the Kogarah, Rockdale and Sans Souci line had a double-bogey axle at the rear of the vehicle with traction being generated by a Metropolitan Vickers model MV-201 90horsepower (approximately 67kW) electric motor. The drive was transmitted through a worm drive differential to both rear axles.

The brakes were basically conventional, with an air-operated foot brake and a mechanical handbrake on both rear axles. In Sydney one of the first trolley bus routes was opened up between the Sydney Town Hall and Pott’s Point, a suburb just to the east of the city. The service was experimental initially, but eventually operated until 1949 before being closed.


Sydney pioneers

On the aforementioned Kogarah, Rockdale and Sans Souci routes some 21 double-deck trolley buses were ordered and provided service from 1937 to 1959.  Wartime demands for passenger transport was unprecedented as petrol rationing reduced consumption of imported oil, so electricity was most certainly the go! The trolley bus was in fact far more flexible than its cousin, the electric tram, as it was not restricted to running on rails. The twin pole system was able to oscillate from side to side, giving the driver leeway to cruise past parked cars and other obstacles in the way. There were four basic trolley bus routes on the Kogarah-Rockdale-Sans Souci line.

The first of which went from Rockdale to Kogarah Station via the Princes Highway, Regent Street, Railway Parade, Grey Street and then along Rocky Point Road to the Sans Souci Park Terminus. The second major trolley bus route serving Rockdale and Kogarah went on to Sandringham and Dolls Point, returning via Russell Avenue.

The third route ran from Rockdale to Kogarah Station and onto Dolls Point, while the fourth and final route in the network ran from Rockdale to Kogarah Station and on to Ramsgate Road. Initially, Kogarah Municipal Council wanted electric trams in the area, but lost the battle. Yet in 1937, Mayor Battye was quoted as saying: "The entire district was jubilant over the new trolley bus service which I feel would aid the area in its march towards greater prosperity". 

Mayor Battye was also quoted saying, "One feels a twinge of regret of saying goodbye to the old steam tram which gave its best and faithfully provided Sans Souci and Sandringham districts with wonderful public transportation over a period of 50 years. "But the old must never, ever, stand [in the way of] the new and we therefore must pass the old steam tram on to its well-deserved and honourable retirement." 


Gradual decline

So by the 1930s the Kogarah steam trams were obsolete, but the new-fangled trolley buses had more creature comforts, which of course were lacking in the steam tram. About 1935, when the demise of the steam tram from Kogarah to Sans Souci took place, the New South Wales Tramways Department announced its intention to replace the steam tram service with what was billed as the "very latest in transportation": the trolley bus.

The NSW Tramways Department also announced in its press release: "The trolley bus, which although it required overhead wires, did not require a rail line and caused less disruption to other traffic. "The trolley bus had an electric motor which was connected by two poles to two overhead powerlines and that current was drawn from the positive overhead wire and returned through the negative wire, unlike the electric trams which only had one overhead wire and used the track as an earthing wire."

Initially, the Kogarah Municipal Council opposed the introduction of the trolley bus, but, on the other hand, the Rockdale Municipal Council supported the idea because it would bring "greater business to Rockdale, which at the time was outstripping Kogarah". Probably just as well, since the trolley bus made a real difference and no doubt brought cheap, clean and green transport to the suburban masses.

In the old days, fares were only tuppence for one section, thrippence for two sections and three sections for 5 pence. The trolley buses served the people of Kogarah, Rockdale and Sans Souci faithfully for more than 22 years and were finally withdrawn from service in 1959, replaced by a fleet of liquid fuel driven buses.

These clean, silent and smooth riding buses were officially withdrawn for reasons known only to our forefathers of the day. Officialdom said "their withdrawal took place because conventional buses were cheaper to run and maintain". With liquid fuel costs rapidly rising, maybe, just maybe, the trolley bus is much more than a great idea in 2008!  

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