Under two wires
There is a misconception that trolleycoaches or trolleybuses run on rails or are guided by their overhead wires. Trolleybuses do neither but can be guided.
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Could the trolleybus be staging a come-back?
Almost everyone, other than President George W Bush it seems, accepts that global warming threatens the long-term existence of the planet and that now is the time to start doing something to combat it.
In the field of urban public transport it is clear that a very significant contribution can be made to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and many cities are moving towards more environment-friendly solutions. In the USA, with one of the worst records for pollution per capita (24% of the world's output of carbon-related emissions from just 4% of its population), there have been strenuous efforts to move away from diesel buses with the resurgence of light rail in more than twenty cities; strict emissions standards in California and other States; the widespread use of hybrid diesel-electric drive systems (notably in New York) and the complete renewal of the trolleybus fleets in Boston, Dayton, San Francisco and Seattle (whose near-neighbour Vancouver also has brand new trolleys in course of delivery). Of the North American systems that survived the virtual death of the mode in the English-speaking world in the 1970s, Philadelphia has just ordered 60 new trolleys to replace its fleet, whilst those mentioned above include two of the world's largest trolleybus networks - San Francisco and Vancouver; each with 300-plus vehicles.
In Europe the trolleybus has strongholds in Switzerland, Italy and the former Soviet bloc (and its satellite states - notably the Czech Republic and Romania) though most EU member states number just a few cities where the trolley reigns supreme (see table).
Athens: One of 96 Van Hool A300T vehicles new to the Athens trolleybus system in 2001 at the start of the complete fleet renewal.
The largest network of the 70 spread throughout the EU & EEA is Athens, where the total renewal of the fleet before the Olympic Games has rejuvenated the city's thinking on trolleybus expansion, with three further busy diesel bus routes now in course of conversion to the wire-bound mode. Next in order of size come Riga, Vilnius, Kaunas, Budapest and Tallinn - all having extensively renewed their investment in the trolleybus in the last few years.
Many experts contend that the overhead line equipment gives citizens the same sense of security as the rails of a tramway and that, as a result, passenger numbers increase with each electrification scheme. This has certainly been the experience in Salzburg in Austria, Arnhem in The Netherlands, Limoges in France and Landskrona in Sweden, to name but four cities where the modern-day trolleybus is held in high regard.
In Britain it was argued that the wiring made the trolleybus inflexible in modern traffic conditions, and that it was unsightly. More than thirty years after the demise of the last UK trolley network (Bradford in March 1972) we have perhaps come to realise that a certain amount of "visual pollution" might well be preferable to the huge growth of private motoring and thus of atmospheric pollution in our towns and cities. To be fair, the type of overhead line equipment (OHLE) developed after World War Two by the Swiss company, K�mmler & Matter, is far superior to anything used by British systems which stuck steadfastly to outdated, overweight and unsightly fittings mounted rigidly with resultant severe speed restrictions on curves and at junctions. In complex layouts the "knitting" where several trolleybus routes ran in parallel with wiring designed to permit overtaking at stops virtually made it possible to stay dry when crossing the street in the rain!
Not so in continental Europe where the OHLE is flexibly mounted and built for speed with 40kph pointwork - and it's actually hard to see (as witness a recent visit to Salzburg by Transit's editor who did not realise there were trolleybuses there!). Increasingly, in the newest installations, so-called special work in the overhead is avoided entirely with the use of battery packs or small auxiliary diesel engines driving through the electric motor of new low-floor trolleybuses to permit off-wire operation. The new line 90 in Rome is a good example of this thinking, with the inner section of the route to Termini Station unwired and run at normal speed on batteries. Automatic raising and lowering of the trolleybooms makes for a simple change over from one drive system to the other.
Landskrona: Each of the new Solaris "Trollino" trolleybuses in Landskrona is named - here is Elvira, the others are Ella and Ellen - in a theme linking Electric power and the Environment.
Similarly, the brand-new one-route system in Landskrona has no frogs or crossings in the OHLE, which simply provides plain-line wiring with a turning circle at each terminus. Runs to & from depot or short workings due to traffic conditions are simply executed in battery mode. The three trolleybuses in this small city on the west coast of Sweden are, incidentally, the only ones operated by one of the major UK transport groups (Arriva), now that Stagecoach has sold its interests in New Zealand and with them the seven-route trolley system in Wellington.
Landskrona is one of the few examples of a totally new trolleybus system from the tail end of the twentieth century and is remarkable for its compact nature, built instead of a promised tramway to link the city centre with its new railway station some three kilometres away, but most cities have been busy expanding their networks in recent years.
Route extensions to serve new developments have been built in a majority of the 70 cities listed in the table and a large number of new low-floor trolleybuses have been introduced as part of their fleet modernisation programmes. These have come from Belgium's Van Hool; the Czech joint venture between �koda and Karosa (now Irisbus); Germany's Neoplan and M-A-N (through its Austrian Gr�f und Stift subsidiary) and Mercedes-Benz (through its Swiss associate NAW in co-operation with body-builder Hess); and last-but-not-least from the enterprising Polish manufacturer Solaris. In a few cases the new vehicles are rigid 15-metre three-axle models (notably in Ostrava and Vilnius) or three-section, four-axle, 25-metre articulated types (Gen�ve & Z�rich) designed to bridge the gap between bus and tram on the busiest routes. Indeed, the manufacturers see a niche market for such "mega-trolleys" in situations where a cheaper option than building a tramway is being sought. But whatever the size of vehicle, where high passenger flows exist on frequent services (and especially in hilly areas) trolleybuses are cheaper to operate than diesels and last for 25 rather than 15 years. And the technology is fully-proven and "here & now" - not waiting in the wings like fuel-cell and other costly alternatives.
So the trolleybus is alive and well outside these shores, and well placed to take on a more important r�le as environmental concerns increase. In the case of Salzburg, for example, local residents and businesses have continually demanded the expansion of the trolleybus network in place of diesel buses - which now make up such a small proportion of the city-owned fleet that they have been sold to the adjacent part-private regional operator.
Autumn 2005: The Bishop of Salzburg blesses the newest Van Hool AG300T trolleybus in the fleet on opening of the extension of route 1 to Klessheim Stadium, 30 September 2005.
Trolleybuses are taken so seriously in the city of Mozart that new route extensions feature a blessing by the Bishop of Salzburg!
Could the trolleybus provide a solution in the UK? It is certainly worth considering and might just help provide an answer to the hotly-contested debate about regulation. Public sector ownership of OHLE and vehicles, with operators selected by tender for long-term contracts might suit the Treasury better than investment in light rail, perhaps?
Trolleybus systems in EU and EEA countries as at 20 August 2008
Andrew Braddock A B O U T
Andrew Braddock is an independent consultant specialising in urban public transport and accessibility issues. His career has spanned both the creation of the National Bus Company in 1969 and its privatisation in the late 1980s, together with a brief period at British Rail and two spells with London Transport. Andrew worked at the Bristol Omnibus, London Country and Alder Valley subsidiaries of NBC, becoming Director & General Manager of �The Bee Line� on privatisation. He returned to LT in 1991 and retired early from Transport for London, where he was Head of Access & Mobility, in September 2003 to establish A B O U T (Andrew Braddock On Urban Transport or About Bus, Overground, Underground, Tram). He describes himself as �a European first and Englishman second� and is a regular contributor to transport magazines on developments in mainland Europe.