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Trolley bus scrap book

by Steve Hayes

Introduction - what this page is about

Electric trolley buses are used for public transport in several cities around the world as an alternative to the more common trams and diesel buses. Several cities in South Africa used to have trolley buses, notably Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. Most of them disappeared in the late 1960s or early 1970s, but in Johannesburg they remained until the 1980s. Other cities, particularly in Europe, still have trolley buses, and don't seem to show any signs of wanting to get rid of them

A Johannesburg Sunbeam Series 3 four-wheeler on the Homestead Park route passing the trolleybus sheds in Fordsburg - Summer 1964/65
I worked as a bus conductor and driver for the Johannesburg Transport Department in 1961-62, and during university vacations for the next few years. I drove both diesel and trolley buses in that time. Since there are several people around the world who are interested in trolley buses, I've put together this page of miscellaneous information and reminiscences, as a kind of trolley bus scrap book for those who find such things interesting. I'll try to add to it when I have time, so if you are interested, bookmark this page for later visits too. At the bottom of the page are some links to other trolley bus pages.


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Johannesburg Transport Department

Johannesburg - A BUT Second series passes an Alfa Romeo-Ansaldo at Vanderbijl Square bus terminus
The Johannesburg Transport Department was known as Johannesburg Municipal Tramways until 1961, when the trams stopped running. The last tram routes were Yeoville and Observatory, which became the Yeoville and Bellevue East trolley bus routes, and Newlands, Bez Valley, Kensington and Malvern, which were converted to diesel bus routes.

The system had electric trams from 1906 to 1961. Trolley buses were introduced in the 1930s, and reached their maximum extent in the 1960s and early 1970s. They were removed from service in the early 1980s after a few experiments with some new types of bus for an urban transport research project.

The experimental buses included the first single-decker trolleybuses to be tried in Johannesburg, but they were only inservice for a short time. There were single-decker oil buses, but at first they were only used for one-man operation in outlying suburbs, while services within the municipal area had two-man operated double deckers.

Johannesburg trolley bus routes

When the trams stopped, the bus routes were renumbered to the scheme above - starting with North at 12 o'clock, and going clockwise round the map from the centre of town. All routes ran from the centre to the suburbs, there was no through running, which was one of the reasons the bus service lost money then, and still loses it now - the buses don't go where people want to go. Apartheid also made it very expensive, but that's not an excuse any more.

So Routes 1 & 2 were north (and 79 was just west of them, and joined at a circle, which was also the terminus for 79A - Parktown North via Zoo Lake). Several routes had an A at the end - these were for buses that ran mainly in peak periods, and followed the same route, but did not go as far. The Parktown North circle was the bane of learner drivers, who usually spent a couple of days practising on it. Eventually it was replaced by an easier layout, which also had the advantage of getting the buses off the street.

Routes 10-20 were north east. 11 and 12 were diesel feeder buses, which ran from the Highlands North Terminus to Bramley and Lyndhurst respectively - the only buses that had transfer tickets.

Routes 44 to 50 were the southern suburbs, and were converted to trolley bus from diesel. Less frequent routes, like 45 (The Hill) and 48 (Linnmeyer) stayed diesel. The Forest Hill (49) routes had some experimental sections of semi-catenary overhead wires. They were suspended from the insulators by two short wires, about a foot long. I don't know if the experiment proved anything, but they were not extended to other parts of the system.

Routes 60, 66 and 67 went west, and 66 and 67 were among the last trolleybus routes to operate in the 1980s. .

Johannesburg trolley bus fleet

A BUT Series 1 going in to the Fordsburg depot in August 1962. It had snowed overnight, there there was still snow on the roof
When I worked in the Johannesburg Transport Department in the 1960s, the fleet consisted of Sunbeam four wheelers and BUT Series 1 6-wheelers, 1940s vintage. They had classy body work, with fully opening windows (very nice when stuck in a traffic jam in summer).

Then there were BUT Series II 6-wheelers, added to the fleet in about 1956, along with some AEC Mk V diesels. The bodies were all metal, and were a little wider than the older buses, but the seats were closer together, sith less leg room, so they were not as comfortable for passengers. The bodies were all built by Bus Bodies of Port Elizabeth, with the exception of some of the Series I BUTs, which had rebuilt bodies by a Germiston firm, and were contemptuously called "bokwa" (goat cart) by the running staff. Conductors, especially, didn't like them, because they had to scrabble on the floor upstairs to change the destination blinds. You can find the story of an attempt to preserve a BUT Series I at www.johannesburg589.com.

In 1959/60 there were some Alfa-Romeo/Ansaldo 6-wheelers, added, which took over 100 passengers, with compressed air power steering.

At the same time there were some Sunbeams, also big. They had hydraulic power steering, and there were some diesel Guys built on the same chassis at the same time. They had a horrible handbrake, which required several pulls of a ratchet, but which would let go everything at the touch of a button.

In the early 1980s there were a few experimental buses, used just before the system closed. They ran on the Hillbrow and Parkhurst routes, and possibly others. I have no more information about them.

I'm not a dedicated bus or train spotter, so I don't have the details about the fleet that such people would like - fleet numbers, technical specifications and the like. But if anyone does have that information, and would like to pass it on to me, I'll be happy to make it available here. Also, if anyone spots any inaccuracies, please let me know, so I can correct them.

The nicest ones to drive were the Sunbeam Series 3 four-wheelers. They ran mainly on the Homestead Park (60) and Mayfair (60A) routes, and also on Greenside (77). They were small, and only held 60 seated passengers. The Mayfair-Homestead Park route was short and very busy, so the conductor would not have time to collect the fares on a bigger bus. Greenside was longer, but a very quiet route, especially at night. They had a long power pedal that was easier to control than most of the others, and it had nine power notches. Late at night, when they did not have a heavy load, they could be quite frisky, and handled almost like a car.

A BUT Series 1 in the depot, summer 1964/65
The first series BUT was similar to the Sunbeam, but a bit longer and heavier, a six-wheeler. It was also somewhat heavier to handle. The second series BUT was bigger and heavier still, and had an automatic power control. Quite a light touch on the power pedal could make it run up about four notches, and if the bus was heavily loaded it could trip the overload switches, easing off on the power pedal would make it run back two or three notches, so there was always a clatter in the cab. It didn't allow the precise control of the older buses.

The Alfa-Romeo-Ansaldo and Sunbeam Series 4 buses were the biggest of the lot. They were introduced in 1959, and could take 110 seated passengers. In spite of having power steering, they were harder to drive. Unlike the older buses, they had the handbrake on the left rather than the right, and the Sunbeams needed 3-4 strokes with the ratchet before the handbrake took. As a result a lot of drivers took power frogs too fast, and the big Sunbeams suffered many dewirements. On the Alfa Romeos the driver was seated much lower, or the sides of the bus were higher, making it more difficult to see the traffic, and one had to be extra careful about cyclists.

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In Athens the trolley bus service is run by ELPAP, which stands for Electrokinita Leoforia Periochis Athinon-Pireos. The trolleybus routes run through the centre of the city, and the diesel buses (run by a separate organisation) run from the centre to the outlying suburbs. The same tickets (bought at kiosks) may be used on both. Until recently all the trolley buses were made in Russia, and were the same as those used in Moscow. They were painted yellow, and were rather old. The fleet is now being modernised, however, probably in preparation for the 2004 Olympics. The new buses are from Neoplan, and are air-conditioned. They also have auxiliary diesel motors to get around obstacles along the route.

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A caterpillar-type trolley bus in Moscow turning just below Red Square to go back across the Moscow River
I visited Moscow in 1995, and spent quite a lot of time riding round on trolley buses and trams, which is a good and reasonably cheap way to see the city, provided that one travels in off-peak hours. What makes bus and tram hopping fun in Moscow is that the public transport network is pretty good, and one doesn't have to backtrack. The routes criss-cross each other, so that when one bus reaches the end of the line, there is usually another going somewhere else. The trolley buses seem to run mostly in the centre, while the trams run a little further out, and diesel buses serve the outlying suburbs. In quite a number of places the trolley buses run under catenary witring, which probably allows them to run faster with less danger of dewirements.

There seemed to be two main types - short four-wheelers, similar to the older ones in Athens, and the long articulared ones. That's about all I know of the composition of the fleet. One thing that interested me was that the trams had pantograph collectors, not trolleys, but they didn't seem to have any problems crossing the trolley bus wires.

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Cambridge, Massachusetts

Trolley buses in the depot in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 1995
After visitng Moscow in 1995, I also went to Boston to take part in a conference. I arrived the day before the conference was due to begin, and spent the night with some friends at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was interested to see that there were trolley bus wires in the streets there, though I never saw a bus running, perhaps because it was the weekend. When I left the following morning, which was a Sunday, to catch a train to where I wanted to go, I passed the depot, and took this photo through the diamond-mesh fence.

The gates to the depot were locked, and there was no activity, so I assumed that the bus service operated on weekdays only. So I never did have a ride on a Cambridge trolley bus. Perhaps one day I'll get back there, and might have a second chance.

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A Sunbeam belonging to Durban Corporation, about 1960
I was born in Durban, and till the age of 7 lived in a small town nearby, called Westville, which was served by an occasional single-decker diesel bus belonging to Durban Corporation. On the way in to town, from Westville, however, the route went through Mayville, which was the terminus of a trolley bus route, and there would often be a trolley bus waiting there, and others were to be seen running up and down Berea Road. My interest in trolley buses began then, and I hoped that one day the wires would be extended to reach Westville.

That hope was never realised. We moved away when I was nearly 7, and only returned for occasional visits. Apartheid came, and the suburbs around Mayville were ethnically cleansed, and the trolley bus route was shortened to end at Tollgate, at the top of Berea Road, and eventually they were taken off in 1968.

When we lived in Westville, the Durban Corporation fleet was painted grey, but it later became multicoloured. Many buses were painted by the advertisers, as the picture shows. "Non-Europeans only" buses were painted green. During the apartheid years the trolley buses had some seats reserved for "Europeans" and others for "non-Euopeans", and there were coloured lights on the front of the bus to tell you which they were. On the bus in the picture the light can be seen just next to the destrination blind. The Durban trolley buses also had racks on the back to hold fishing rods. Two routes ran down West Street to the beach, where one went along the Marine Parade to the North Beach, while the other went past the South Beach to Addington Hospital, On those routes one usually saw three or four fishing rods in the racks.

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Started: 4 July 2000
Updated: 16 September 2013