Sydney’s public transport – Trolley Buses

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Trolley bus No.1. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of the NSW Department of Tramways, 1956. B1320.

Trolley bus No.1. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of the NSW Department of Tramways, 1956. B1320.

With the immanent closure and removal of Sydney’s controversial Monorail on 30 June 2013, I am reminded of the demise of other types of public transport in Sydney like horse buses; steam, cable and electric trams and trolley buses. “Trolley buses?” I hear you say. Yes, Sydney had a trolley bus service from 1934. Like the Monorail it was heralded as the next big thing in public transport threatening to oust Sydney’s much-loved trams.

Trolley bus No. 1 on the wharf in Sydney after its arrival on the Jervis Bay.

Trolley bus No. 1 on the wharf in Sydney after its arrival on the Jervis Bay.

What’s a trolley bus? Well, basically it’s a cross between a bus and a tram. Trolley buses looked like ordinary motor buses on rubber-tyred wheels except that, like trams, they operated on electricity and were connected to overhead wires by a pair of trolley poles. Unlike trams they were quiet, not confined to tram tracks, could move from lane to lane in traffic and pick up passengers from the curb-side rather than the middle of the road.

Sydney’s first trolley bus, No. 1, was imported from England and made by AEC. It arrived by ship in October 1933 and with a second trolley bus, was tested on the driver training circle inside the former Kensington Racecourse, now the site of the University of New South Wales.

 

Interior view of the trolley bus.

Interior view of the trolley bus.

These single-deck trolley buses were introduced for a 12-month trial period on the Wylde Street service from Potts Point to Elizabeth Street and began operation on the 22 January 1934. They were ceremoniously driven out of their Rushcutters Bay depot after the then Minister for Transport, Colonel Bruxner, turned on the power. (The trolley bus depot was in the former cable tram winding engine house). Somewhat embarrassingly, one of the trolley buses de-wired during the day and passengers were transferred to trams! This was not a good start as the Government was looking into placing some tram services with trolley buses. Looking at photos of them in the city in the 1930s they appear incredibly modern compared to the old-fashioned looking cars and trucks with which they shared the road.

 

Trolley bus on route in Sydney

Trolley bus on route in Sydney

Unfortunately, the trolley buses continued to suffer from de-wiring problems over the hilly terrain of their route and having to pass tramway crossings. During road repairs in 1948 they were temporarily replaced by diesel buses but were never reinstated. Nevertheless, in 1937 another trolley bus service, from Rockdale station to Kogarah, Sans Souci and Sandringham, replaced the last government-operated steam trams. The flat locality of these suburbs must have aided the trolley buses’ reliability. The twenty-one trolley buses for this service, which ceased in 1959, were the largest double-deck vehicles in Australia and seated sixty-three passengers with front and rear doors and staircases.

 

Single and double-deck trolley buses.

Single and double-deck trolley buses.

Trolley buses were always considered to be trams. They were worked by tram crews, issued tram tickets and never carried motor vehicle registration. They acquired the nickname ‘whispering death’ because, being electrically driven on pneumatic tyres, they crept up on unwary pedestrians.

 

The Museum has Trolley bus No. 1 and it’s on display at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre. I wonder in 2060 if my successors will be writing with nostalgia and affection for the Monorail?

 

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport