TROLLEYBUS OPERATIONS IN NZ

Trams were the main means of urban public transport in New Zealand’s largest cities at the start of the 20th century. These cumbersome vehicles were noisy, draughty, dusty and uncomfortable. The rails embedded in the city streets they ran on often caused accidents when people tripped over them or narrow wheeled bikes got lodged in them.

When trolleybuses arrived on the scene, inner city travel became a lot more pleasant. For starters, trolleybuses were quiet. They were also clean and a lot more comfortable. However, despite the improvements over trams, only five cities in New Zealand have used trolleybuses. Sadly, none survive in New Zealand now: Christchurch terminated its trolleybus system in 1956, New Plymouth in 1967, Auckland in 1980, Dunedin in 1982 and Wellington as recently as 2017. However, New Zealand city authorities now realize they were too quick to retire their trolleybuses as increasing numbers of cities in Europe and the USA use them as a highly efficient part of their public transport systems. They see the benefit in them because they are pollution free and quiet.

TROLLEYBUSES ARRIVE IN NZ

The electric trolleybus was a clean alternative to petrol or diesel buses. The Wellington City Council introduced the first trolleybus in New Zealand in 1924 to run between the seaside suburb of Kaiwharawhara and Thorndon, but the service was discontinued in the early 1930s due to a lack of patronage. It was also at this time that trolleybuses were introduced in Christchurch and Auckland. By the early 1950s trolleybuses were also running in Dunedin, New Plymouth, and once again in Wellington.

Trolleybuses were more manoeuvrable (within the limits of the overhead lines that powered them) more powerful, and had better traction than motor buses. They were ideal for operating in hilly areas of Wellington and Dunedin. As they were based on the same technology as tramways, maintenance staff did not need retraining, and existing tramway workshops could be retained.

TROLLEYBUS SERVICES IN AUCKLAND

On 19th December 1938, the Auckland Transport Board introduced trolleybuses to the city with four vehicles. The service operated from the Farmers Department Store in Hobson Street and travelled along Queen, Wyndham, Hobson and Victoria Streets. The route was just one km (0.64 miles) long. Eleven years later, a second route of 4.5 kilometres (2.7miles) was introduced from the CBD to Herne Bay. Over the following decade, further routes were added with all trams replaced by trolleybuses by 1956.  However, in the 1970s fuel driven buses became more popular because they were not limited by overhead powerlines, and the city’s trolleybus network began to shrink. The Meadowbank route closed in 1968 and the last Auckland trolleybus was removed from service on the 26th of September 1980.

NEW PLYMOUTH

Only one regional city in New Zealand ever had trolleybuses. New Plymouth City Council first started operating motor buses in 1918, two years after starting its tram service. However, in 1950 the council ordered 4 British built trolleybuses for the Westown route to Wallath road. This modest operation ran for 17 years until October 1967 when trolleybuses were replaced with diesel ones. The city’s only other trolleybus route to Port-Fitzroy operated for only four years and ceased in 1954.

CHRISTCHURCH

The first trolleybus service connected the central city to Shirley. It commenced on 1st of April 1931 and was later extended to the Brighton Pier via North Beach. Patronage of the Marine Parade section was poor, leading to the service terminating at North Beach from 31st May 1933. The Christchurch vehicles were extremely ugly with squat windows and four wheels at the back. They looked more like army vehicles than urban transport ones. However, being trolleybuses, they were quiet and much cleaner than the petrol and diesel buses on offer. For a number of years, none of the trolleybuses ever displayed route numbers, but later, some were given them.

The inflexibility of the trolleybus system due to the overhead power lines, and the council’s decision to standardise the city’s public transport with diesel buses, led to the decision to withdraw the trolleybuses two decades after introducing them. The last Christchurch trolleybus completed a trip to North Beach on 8th of November 1956.

DUNEDIN

Trolleybuses commenced operating in Dunedin on 24th of February 1950 from Bond Street in the central business district to the northern hill suburb of Opoho. By 1958 a fleet of 79 trolleybuses operating on 14 routes had replaced all of the city’s trams. During my high school years in Dunedin, I caught a trolleybus to and from the school which was located in the central city. I loved these quiet vehicles. While waiting for one at my local bus stop, I had to keep an eye out for them as they were so quiet, they could easily glide by if I was distracted.

The only problem with them usually occurred in the Exchange, which at the time, was the transport hub in the centre of town. There was a jumble of overhead power lines here with a number of splitters to allow the numerous trolleybus routes to branch off in various directions. If the bus driver moved the bus too fast, the pair of power poles on the bus could ping free from the overhead lines and swing like a pair of drunken sailors until the driver tightened the restraining ropes on the poles and placed them back on the lines. In the bus, we would hear the hum of electricity start up as the bus was again connected to its power source.

There was a lot of grumbling from the people of Dunedin (and I guess the same complaints were voiced in Auckland and Wellington when they lost their quiet trolleybuses too) when diesel buses were introduced. They were noisy both to ride in and to hear on the street. They were also smelly and belched clouds of filthy smoke from their exhausts. So much for progress! Despite these drawbacks and complaints, Dunedin trolleybuses were progressively removed from service starting in 1969, with the final route closing in March 1982.

Dunedin Trolleybus (transpress.nz)

WELLINGTON

The city’s first trolleybus route was inaugurated with a single trolleybus running from Thorndon to the seaside settlement of Kaiwharawhara on the 29th September 1924. A trolleybus was chosen for this route because a large water main made tram track construction impossible. Passengers didn’t embrace the trolleybus and when a motor bus service was introduced, patronage declined further and the trolleybus was withdrawn on 30th of May 1932.

A second and more extensive trolleybus network was approved in 1945 when the council decided to gradually replace trams with trolleybuses because they were more manoeuvrable and more modern than the rattly trams. Trolleybuses were also preferred over diesel or petrol buses due to better traction on Wellington’s steep slopes. The first route opened on 20th of June 1949 from the central city to Roseneath. The next route opened to Aotea Quay and was notable as the only trolleybus terminus in New Zealand where trolleybuses reversed to turn round.

In 2014, the Greater Wellington Regional Council recommended closure of the entire trolleybus system. Public consultations on the proposal were followed by a final decision to close the entire system by 2017. The published reasons included cost of infrastructure maintenance and upgrading, inflexibility of a wire linked network, plus slower speeds and less reliability than diesel buses.

The closure was questioned. However, the government would not step in to save the network and Wellington residents were unhappy when on the 31st of October 2017 the system closed. From this day, the last trolleybus in New Zealand had disappeared into history. Work to remove the infrastructure began in October that year with all works completed by late 2018.

Unlike many forward-thinking city councils around the developed world, New Zealand cities no longer have clean, quiet trolleybuses gliding along their streets. It is unlikely they will ever return as the cost of building the overhead power lines would be the excuse councils would use to stop electric buses ever returning.

Ceidrik Heward

Comments

  1. Great blog. The good old trolley buses.
    We could do with them back on our roads again. So much better for the environment.

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