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Remembering the London Trolleybus


One of my regular contributors, Coral Rutterford sent me a film about London Trolleybuses and she reminisced about travelling on one the trolleybuses that used to travel around London.

 I remember these and often the driver had to get out and put the trolley wires back in place and move on. This brought back memories of places where my relations once lived, where I lived, and places that I recall like Gardiners Corner when the huge shop Gardiners once dominated the crossroads. Sadly that has gone and a small stone plaque against a wall now marks where it once stood.

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Gardiners Corner

I must confess I have never seen an old trolleybus in action and was quite fascinated about how and why they took over from Trams. It seemed strange they did not just convert to motor buses but it did make some economic and political sense as the power generated to operate the trolleybus was from British coal fired power stations whilst much of the fuel used in cars and buses was imported from abroad. I was also quite surprised looking at the research that the modern nostalgia for trams was often at odds with feelings of the time a newspaper report of the time remarks

In 1933 London had 2564 trams, carrying 13 million passengers daily, but traffic conditions were so chaotic that other road users could only travel along main streets, even in off-peak periods, at a snail’s pace.

But the decision to do away with the trams was controversial, another newspaper report states:

As we anticipated when the announcement was made a couple of months ago, the proposal of the London Passenger Transport Board to seek powers to convert certain of their tramway routes to trolley-bus operation has aroused a great deal of opposition. It is now stated that 72 petitions have been deposited against the Bill, these emanating from such diverse bodies as the county and borough councils, the Trustees of the British Museum, ground landlords, like the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and the Duke of Bedford, the Automobile Association, and the Royal Automobile Club.

But when the decision was made to convert to trolley buses, the Times at least were happy

The ‘Times’ states: ‘For over 75 years the tramway, horse-drawn and electrically driven, has held sway. Today it is being fast replaced — and rightly so — by the trolley omnibus, which is that rare thing, a successful compromise.’

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Other than they were slow, Trams were costly to set down tracks and any breakdown would disrupt the entire system, Trolleybuses needed no tracks just overhead power lines, they could hold up to 70 passengers and were clean and quiet. The first routes were opened in 1931 and by the mid 1930s trolleybuses were introduced across the capital. In fact the system became so popular many other cities set up their own trolleybuses networks.

However, trams  just did not just disappear, in 1950 there were still 850 trams in use but the writing was on the wall.

 London Transport chairman, Lord Latham, said ‘buses were quieter and more comfortable. The same mileage could be covered in much shorter time and use of buses had transformed the most congested traffic spots. Bus services had achieved far greater regularity than was possible with trams, with consequent reductions in waiting time for passengers. ‘The changes in conditions at a number of key points are little short of dramatic,’ said Latham. ‘Improvements have been achieved because of the greater mobility of buses over trams where delay of a single vehicle affected all those behind it, and because tram conversion has freed the centres of roads from hold-ups. ‘Private and commercial vehicles using the affected routes are now able to do their journeys into and about London in much less time and with greater ease.’

However the victory of the Trolley bus over the tram was short-lived by the end of the 1950s, the increase of motor cars on the road and the cost of replacing the ageing trolleybuses led to a decision to convert entirely to diesel motor buses. By the 1960s , the age of the London trolleybus was over and although some 125 were sold to Spain, the great majority were scrapped.


Like Coral, many people who rode them tended to like them, they were large, clean and quiet. People tended to like the way the crackling on the wires let you know a trolley bus on its way and the shower of sparks from the connectors at certain points. Most people mention the driver  with a long pole to put the connector back on the wire when it dropped off. The trolley bus system did not come onto the Isle of Dogs but did have a terminus at the West India Dock and a stop at Poplar on the way to the Royal Docks.

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The age of the London trolleybus may have ended in the 1960s, but even as recently as 2012, there have been calls for them to be reintroduced. Many people believe the environmentally friendly Trolleybus is one of the answers to the traffic gridlocks in major cities.