What’s Up with Trolleybuses?

The Trolleybus (AKA: electric bus, trolley bus, trolley coach, trackless trolley, trackless tram) is an interesting technology, crossing the rubber-tired bus with the fixed guideway element of overhead caternary wires.

Folks from AORTA have proposed trolleybuses as a lower-cost alternative to Streetcars. The nearest local examples are in Seattle. We also saw trolleybuses in operation on the recent Metro trip to Vancouver, B.C.

On that trip, one of our number remarked that in any city where he had seen trolleybuses, the fleet seemed to be very old.

So my question is why is this technology not seeing more investment? The Streetcar argument is that rails are (arguably) a stronger signal of permance to deverlopers. But isn’t the technology a viable upgrade to diesel buses? Why don’t we see more use around North America? Is there a point at which diesel prices would make electric operation sufficiently cheaper to warrent the capital investment? Are there hybrid-diesel buses that could easily switch to electric-only operation (sort of like plug-in hybrid cars)?

32 responses to “What’s Up with Trolleybuses?”

  1. SF has them and they are duel fuel and can travel outside the wires to pick up passengers.

    The irrationl exhuberance with rail is the fault.
    And the Streetcar argument that rails are stronger signal of permance to deverlopers is a wholy nonsensical concoction.

  2. Lots of complaint about the overhead wiring, but here’s a new concept in buses from Volvo, known as the “streetcar” http://www.buszone.co.uk/News1005.html.
    You’ll have to scroll down to see it.
    Our friends across the pond seem to have a better grip on inner city transit than we do.

  3. Coming from Seattle, where trolleybusses are (were) plentiful, they tend to be a god-awful eyesore, clogging the sky above the street level. The effect is especially pronounced downtown where you already have the “urban canyon” effect. Seattle has removed many of it’s overhead lines and replaced some buses with alternate fuel vehicles. I’d like to see (especially for a short downtown route) an electric vehicle, or a way to transmit power from the ground rather than overhead.

    I’ll also agree that because a trolleybus route is not permanent/fixed, there is less value in building around that route.

  4. If I’m not mistaken, Vancouver has ordered a new fleet that will be delivered in the next year or 2. Also, SEPTA (Philly) recently awarded a contract for a new fleet. Not sure what the specs are however.

    My biggest problem with the streetcar is that it is LOUD. What is that chain-clinking sound it makes? Why are they so much louder than MAX trains?

  5. Michael –

    The articulated Volvo “streetcar” you link to is one of many articulated “BRT” style buses. Eugene, OR is in the process of installing a line right now. Check out: http://www.ltd.org/search/showresult.html?versionthread=a986bf72c78bb7e5312e5607fb595fbe

    Chris –

    Regarding Trolleybus age, the vehicles are mechanically simpler than a diesel bus and tend to last longer with less maintenance. Both Seattle and San Francisco have a number of newer vehicles in their fleet recently, but the old ones just keep going and going.

    That such old vehicles are still maintained may also have to do with US federal policies which subsidies some types of buses and not others, and the fact that most trolleybuses are currently from overseas vendors.

    Manzell –

    Unfortunately, fully-electric transit vehicles must run on overhead power if they are to mix with street traffic, for reliability and safety. Any time you bring high-current, high-voltage potential near the feet of pedestrians, you are asking for trouble. There have been experimental systems that hide the electrical in a slot under the road, but this slot can clog up with debris, water, and ice, etc. and is more expensive than standard rail to install. At that point, why not just build a rail system?

    – Bob R.

  6. We had these electric buses in Portland years ago. In the old Rose City Transit days they were common.

    Today we have learned that streetcars that we had in the past running the street of our region were not so bad, practical and they were fun too!

    It may be time to apply something that is not new either and that is making transportation decisions based on “Weight Value Decision Processing Methods”.

    We may have learned and would now weight that it is more important to conserve the environment by saving the air from the need to use fossil fuel vehicles by going back to electric and living with overhead wires in given corridors.

  7. The city where I grew up in Ohio had a fleet of these trolley buses and they were both reliable and quiet. As for the overhead wires, you do start to not notice them. I would much rather have a cleaner environment than worry about the “eyesore” of wiring. The problem I see is that simple, cost-effective solutions are not considered because the powers that be are too in love with “new” and “cutting edge”.

  8. Maybe the design doesn’t have to be like the ones shown in the Wikipedia link, but to me and a lot of people I know, the current Portland streetcar is much more inviting than a bus, whether it’s a trolleybus or the regular kind. I know it’s a psychological thing, but that doesn’t make it less true: the current streetcars just feel more open and welcoming than any bus, and that makes me more likely to use them when I have a choice. I wonder if anyone has surveyed riders to see if such psychological/ aesthetic values affect ridership.
    I also like the streetcar’s chirpy sound, but maybe that’s just me.

  9. In Portland, trolley busses began to replace streetcars on some routes in the 1930s. High transit volume streets like Sandy Boulevard and Hawthorne had trolley buses. North Portland also had trolley bus service. Some evidence of the wiring systems required still remains in place today. Examples include steel poles still standing at the East end (north side) of the Broadway Bridge, and here and there along Sandy Boulevard. After Rose City Transit had taken over city bus operations from Portland Traction Company, trolley buses ceased operating in 1958, replaced by gasoline powered buses. Most of gasoline powered busses were built by Mack with a few Fagol Twin Coaches in the mix that were also used on a downtown shopper loop.

    The first diesel busses for in-city service did not arrive until a couple of years later, only five of the GM new look type with hard upholstered seats. Twenty more GM New Look busses came in 1962 with two-tone blue soft upholstered seats. The three blue lines that served the Portland suburbs, Intercity Busses, Portland Stages & Tualatin Valley Busses, all ran GM old look diesels with manual transmissions. Many of them could have come used directly or indirectly from Greyhound which also ran interurban type service in many US cities. The busses like many old diesels often belched smelly dark smoke from their exhaust pipes located under the rear bumpers. When Tri-Met took over operations in 1969, many of gasoline powered busses and the old blue busses were still in service. It took Tri-Met several years to replace them with mostly new look busses built by Flxible painted Orange. It should also be noted, the Vancouver Bus Company operated one line across the Interstate Bridge into Portland using GM old look busses painted yellow.

    One of the advantages trolley busses have over streetcars is their ability to maneuver approximately one lane out in each direction from under the overhead wires. This allows trolley busses to pullover to the curb out of travel lanes when stopping for passengers and let other traffic pass allowing for a more efficient total transportation system rather than having busses stopping and blocking other traffic. This also allows trolley busses to maneuver around an obstruction directly in their path, and eliminates the need for extended curb loading platforms that have become part of many modern streetcar systems.

    As for operating older equipment; if it isn’t broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed. There is nothing wrong with operating older transit equipment if it is clean, serves the primary purpose of moving people and can save the taxpayers money. This “everything has to be new” attitude of government is totally absurd, let alone expensive. The first Max cars were projected to last 30 years, and should last far longer then that with good maintenance.

    In concept, trolley busses could have a place in Portland, and in the long run, save taxpayers money when compared to some of the other transit options.

  10. I lived on the 22 Fillmore line in SF. In those days the Muni ran diesel on the weekends.
    Trollybuses, even updated ones, are kind of clunky and while quiet, weave in and out to stops, etc., like any bus.
    On the streetcar the other day I overheard a visitor comment that he was reminded of SF’s cable cars…a reach if you ask me, but it suggests that Streetcar has some kind of charm or attraction that buses, not matter how they are powered, lack.
    On a practical side, trolly buses cannot be temporarily rerouted and can get stuck in traffic, but maybe newer technologies solve that.
    The really big variable with any kind of bus is the operator…if they are having a bad day or are in a bad mood, it isn’t fun to get on their bus. Other operators greet everyone like a long lost friend, and that really get’s the party going.

  11. Other operators greet everyone like a long lost friend, and that really get’s the party going.

    When the F-Line was rechristened in San Francisco (late ’90s?), there was a semi-retired streetcar operator who ran an F-Line car on weekends. This guy was apparently a local attraction (in the “keep Portland weird” style) in San Francisco… he knew the tune and lyrics to just about any popular song not written in the last 20 years, and would sing along the entire route, take requests, etc.

    Along the route, he would engage the external speakers and serenade pedestrians while waiting for traffic lights.

    For awhile, whenever I would visit San Francisco on weekends, I would try out the F-Line at least once a day, just to see if I would catch this guy… I was usually lucky. Haven’t seen him in more recent years.

    – Bob R.

  12. I often ride these trolley bues on my way to work(when I have assignments at the Temp Agency), or while doing errands. The #7 runs close to my house(about a mile). THe system that was an eye-sore was the old system that relied on fewer substations and more feeder cables. The system that started around 1980 is a feederless system with more rectifier substations. In 1963, Seattle Transit dieselized half the routes. They went from a $1 million profit, to a $1 million deficit within a year. The city did not have access to their own fuel supply like they did with the trolleybuses. SEattle City LIght, with it’s cheap and abundant hydropower, was able to provide electricity for Seattle Transit(also city owned) at less than the cost of diesel. The State LEgislature helped out, by exempting municipal bus systems from paying the state fuel taxes. Now this was Seattle-Centric, because at the time, only Seattle had a municipally-owned bus system in the state. One of the routes dieselized was the #7 Ranier Valley. When Metro took over, they learned that the city had made a mistake. The Ranier Valley route was heavilly used, and consumed more buses at a time when every bus was needed to establish service in the county. Electrict buses required fewer vehicles to be used on a route. Metro has about 12-14 trackless trolley routes, and when the conversion of the tunnel fleet to surface voltage is completed, these routes will use 160 trackless trolleys. The current Metro Fleet(all vehicles, including 100 coaches operated by Metro for Sound Transit), is 1400 buses on 215 routes.

    I wished Metro had not chosen the cheap option when it comes to replacement. With the 40ft buses, they chose to refurbish the motors, and buy 100 more Gillig Phanton bodies and use the motors in those.(At the time, Metro was sticking with High Floor buses in it’s fleet). With the 60ft. buses, they took the AnsaldoBreda Dual-Modes that had been replaced by the New Flyer Hybrids on tunnel duty, and converted 60 of them to run on surface trolley routes. A new fleet policy could have included dual-mode buses with off-wire capability. Route 11-Madison Park runs on Madison St east of Broadway, this portion of the route used to be operated by a Cable Car in the old days, it is steep. Running up from Madison Park on Lake Washington, it assaults a steep grade, then goes down another into a valley, and then goes up the street, turns off onto Pine St.(West of Broadway, another trackless trolley route operates). This steep hill climbing consumes a lot of fuel. The trackless trolley running on this route was eliminated in 1965. A dual-mode would need to be a necessity on the Madison Park leg, as the neighborhood is expensive property. THe Counterbalance on Queen Anne Ave saved trackless trolleys from extinction in Seattle. GM had a diesel that could go up it, until a test. At best it could get up the hill was 9MPH, while the Trackless Trolley got 18MPH.

    The main eyesores today are where several lines cross, like a spider web, although in a few places, they try to keep that to a minimum.

  13. One item regarding trolley busses that I left out of my previous post was that lightening once destroyed a trolley bus in Portland. This happened in one of the last few years of trolley bus service in Portland, as I recall on Hawthorne, slightly East of Grand Avenue near Francis Ford, now the Multnomah County Building. At that time there was no parking structure to the South. Lightening either hit the trolley wires aboce the bus or the top of the trolley poles. That sent an electrical charge down the wires at the back of the bus and into the motor starting an electrical fire. All passengers got off OK, but the inside of the bus was for the most part gutted by the fire.

  14. A few months ago, I was on one that had a spectacular de-wire, and it was almost like lightening. The driver had sped up a little to try to make up time lost due to road construction, but it was an older M*A*N Articulated Trackless Trolley, a model due to be retired by next year. It had an older pole, unlike the newer ones that are more flexible, and not only did the pole fall off the wire, it stripped a support wire holding it in place. (The main wires stayed on). I am not sure if they fixed it up and returned it to duty, it probably ended up on the dead line at Atlantic Base.

    Route 7 has buses running every 10 minutes for the bulk of the day, 15 minutes from 6-9PM, and every 30 minutes from 9-2AM. It is a 24-hour route, but from 3-6AM, Diesels are substituted as Metro maximizes the Night Owls on 4th Ave headed Northbound, and there are no wires on 4th Ave.

    Even using the wheelchair lift can cause the buses to bunch up. Although in the case of the 4200 series bues, Metro might have removed a key feature when they were tunnel buses. The Tunnel Buses could raise and lower their trolley poles at the flip of a switch. Use that combined with batteries, they could concievably bypass a slower-running full bus. By choosing the re-tread option instead of new vehicles, which cost more, Metro messed up. The newest diesels plus the hybrids are low-floor, flipping the ramp is a faster option than the old wheelchair lift. Level boarding can save time.

  15. Nobody has noticed that Seattle is actually purchasing new trolley busses…

    The bodies are Gillig Phantom bodies (same as TriMet’s 1400-1600 and 2100 series busses), but with the electric drivetrain rebuilt and pulled from the older coaches.


    Probably the technology hasn’t changed much, and the electric drivetrain just needs an overhaul, but the bus itself was “worn out” and not very appealing to the customer – so King County got brand new busses fairly inexpensively.

    Portland – unlike Seattle – doesn’t have a cheap source of power though.

  16. “The bodies are Gillig Phantom bodies (same as TriMet’s 1400-1600 and 2100 series busses), but with the electric drivetrain rebuilt and pulled from the older coaches.”

    There should be a lesson here for Portland. Not everything has to be brandy new. Some things can save taxpayers money by being be rebuilt and reused, not just chopped up and recycled. Wake up Portland!!!

  17. Personally, with having family members that have a hard time getting up stairs, I would rather have seen them buy the body from a New Flyer Low Floor body.

    As for the vehicles, KCM get’s good mileage out of these vehicles. In 1972, the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle(the old Regional Government forced to merge with King County in 1994) aquired Seattle Transit, which still had 50 of the 307 trackless trolleys that were purchased between 1940 and 1944 to replace the streetcars, in service. Metro retired them in 1978, after 34-38 years in service. Their replacements were 25 when phased out.

  18. I’d love to see trackless trolleys/electric trolley buses return to Portland and run on the major transit streets.
    NW 23rd

    Didnt TriMet seriously consider trolley buses two seperate times in the mid 70s and then again in the early 80s?

  19. Please write/send to TRIMET right away about your comment about trolleybus brings back to Portland ASAP! Tell TRIMET about your experience information and support Trolleybus in Portland! Please adds “Trolleybus” to Portland Transport Modes!

  20. My first time to this page. I am an ex-trackless trolley operator from Seattle and drove all three of the basic trolley types there. Noticed also, someone mentioning the incident where lightning caused a fire in one of their trolleys. I remember that incident. I read about it in the Seattle Times. Included was a picture of the trolley. The story goes, lightning struck the wires and followed them to the trolley, which then caught fire… This is the first time that I’ve heard any discussion about that fire since it happened!

  21. New Flyer is building these vehicles, Low Floor ones at that, for Vancouver on the Fraser. Supposedly Philadelphia’s SEPTA bought a few of that model, but with some of the problems SEPTA has had over the years making decisions about the future of Electric Trolleys, both tracked and trackless in Philadelphia, I am not sure if the order is still on.


    Here are some resources on the idea of transportation electrification, trolleybuses get a mention in both.



  22. Hello Evergreen Fan…
    Seems like bus service on the 7 line has slipped. When I was driving that line in the 70’s, 15 min. service was in affect until 11:30 PM. I guess the same things that afflict us in LA are finally affecting Seattle. LA MTA would rather run its buses with people almost hanging out of the windows rather than promote adequate service. In my day, service was so frequent on some lines that buses almost ran in sections. I often worked #2 West Queen Ann and a bunch of us would arrive at the Counter Balance at the foot of Queen Ann Hill together. The rule was that it was only one trolley up the hill at a time so we’d bunch up at the bottom. We were all about service and really moved the people, a far cry from what’s happening today with many transit systems. The new breed of people are full of dreams dancing in their heads of “privatization” when no transit system in the U.S. can ever do that. They have reached the same plateau as AMTRAK.

  23. The every 10 minutes was from 5AM-7AM, but they re-aligned the routes last year, shortened the 7 to Downtown-Ranier Beach, supposedly to end bus bunching. There seems to be a relatively new addition to the bus fleet, every bus in the Metro fleet has it. it is a rectangular, metalic device right above the route-marker on the front. I believe it was from an experiment done on Ranier Ave a few years ago to boost reliability. Traffic-Signal Pre-emption. Not sure if the equipment still works, but it is needed, on more routes.

  24. Yes, I’ve seen that device over the route number on the buses. I first noticed it on the AMG’s a few years ago. Noticed them also on the Flyers and Gilligs. Your hunch sounds correct and most cities are doing one thing or another to pre empt traffic signals. We here at MTA in LA employ transponders underneath the buses that lock traffic signals on green when a bus approaches an intersection. If you look, you can see the marks from the submerged “strips” about a half block before the intersection. I’ve seen Seattle come a long way, from Yellow Coaches, Whites, KW’s (all manual trans) and gasoline-powered Twins from the late 30’s and 40’s up until now. I rode them all and later drove coaches from the same era.

  25. We might be seeing some short extensions to the Metro Trolleybus Network. They will connect with LINK Light Rail at Mt. Baker Station(Route 14-Mt. Baker, one of the few South of Spokane St routes that was not cut in 1963, at the time it was the 10-Mt. Baker line, it adopted the 14 when it was merged with the 14-Summit line), and Othello/New Holley Station(36 Beacon Hill). It would be the first short extension since the 36T was extended from Beacon and Dawson to Othello St, and if the plan to have the 36 go to Ranier Beach go through, the first full electrification in a decade.


  26. Back in October Terry Parker mentioned the blue lines of old saying several things slightly in error:

    1. Their equipment came directly or indirectly from Greyhound. Partly correct. The Forest Grove and McMinnville line were taken over from Greyhound in 1960. The equipment, GM TDM 4515s, came with the deal. They were manual transmission.

    2. The rest of the routes were orginal to the company. Equipment was variously purchased new or used. These buses all had hydraulic transmissions. Some may have come from LA.

    3. Terry forgot Estacada Mollalla Stages. This was the original George Fournier operation That grew into the Tualatin Valley and Intercity operation.

    I drove for Tualatin Valley and then Tri-Met from 1967 to 73. Paid for school quite nicely.

  27. I grew up in Milwaukee, WI which had many routes of trolley buses. Marmon-Herrington, St. Louis Car Co., Pullman-Standard, and Yellow Coach (GM) were all used. Very fast, clean and quiet. The last route (#18) was shut down in 1965. The grumble of the time was diesel #2 was cheaper than the overhead wire maintenance of the trolleys. The DC Motor-Generator technology that was employed at the time was in service since about 1939 and consisted of inefficient Motor-Generator (MG) sets scattered around the city. With todays technology using SCR drives and computer control, a huge increase in efficiency could be realized. However, GUVMINT isn’t interested in efficiency, only the status quo, building employment empires with unions, and little will occur unless the public demands lower fares, lower taxes, and the getting away from burning $80/barrel PLUS oil!

    • I suppose this might be slipping away from the topic but I think there is something that might be considered for the new Powell/Division BRT from Gresham to Union Station/Collins Circle, a distance of about fifteen miles.

      NewFlyer, which claims to be the largest bus manufacturer in North America, has an all electric bus with a range of 80 miles (elsewhere they also say ‘Up to 120 miles’). They use interesting charging stations using pantographs which can be used during layovers.

      This would allow four full trips with twenty miles left over. Some charging at each end during layovers which I assume would bout fifteen minutes would, I believe allow the bus to be used all day.

      Full recharging at night, no transmission, no exhaust, far less maintenance and fuel savings might be a reason for TriMet to consider this option. Go to and look at the brochure/video for the Xcelsior all electric bus.

      I’m not sure how many new buses would be needed but I do think that in order for this project to be true BRT. rather that just a glorified regular bus route, some innovative steps need to be taken.

      Cost of the buses and charging stations is a major consideration but something like this would be a major improvement over the trolley bus concept that I rode as a kid.

      • Retail on the transit mall has always been weaker than neighboring streets. Rather than the lack of teaser parking and auto through access the business groups jumped on and which was rectified in the renovation when rail was added, I think the bigger issue was the buses. They’re really loud. Anecdotally the ones in Seattle seem far more tolerable. Electric buses, with or without trolley wire, could make BRT more compatible with activating the sidewalks and supporting development along the corridor.

      • Electric buses would be a lot quieter than diesel. 80 miles is not bad, although Pantera claims they have tested one that traveled 260 miles. One issue on battery consumption is heating the vehicle. Yachts and some RV’s use compact, diesel furnaces and I think these would be safe, considering that they are used in marine applications. Of course, public transit might have a different liability standard.

        I think we could actually switch over to electrically powered buses right away, assuming that something like QuebecHydro’s med.-heavy vehicle electric motor would fit. Use todays’ batteries, until more efficient ones come out over the next several years. A brand new electric bus would be rather expensive, but I have been through many rebuilding projects, and I bet that some of TriMet’s existing fleet could be converted. The added weight of a battery pack, would be offset since the QH motor weighs about what a bus transmission does, and then you save a ton or more by replacing the engine.

        When you’re in the 900,000 dollar range for a new electric bus, conversions would be well worth analyzing.

        • The NewFlyer/Xcelsior electric buses do have a heater that uses a small amount of biodiesel in VERY COLD conditions. I’m not sure what they consider very cold but, since the company is based in Canada, it is most likely very low temperatures. They do have production facilities in the US.

          I do believe quiet, no emissions, low maintenance electric buses would be the answer for BRT. Maybe also the answer on some other routes. What company the are purchased from is not important assuming that our need are met. I realize cost is critical.

  28. OK, so here’s the deal:
    (1) Trolleybus overhead is substantially more complicated than light rail overhead, because you need two wires (supply and return) instead of one. Much more visual clutter.
    (2) Trolleybuses lack the *crucial* economic advantage of trains — the ability to form, um, trains. When demand goes up, you can eep attaching additional cars to a light rail train to add more capacity while paying the same number of *drivers*. You can’t do that with trolleybuses.

    On the other hand, trolleybuses are better at climbing really steep hills than trains are. So guess which cities tended to keep their trolleybuses? Seattle, San Francisco…

    Anyway, battery-electric buses are now widely available. It should be easy to replace the vast majority of city buses with these, as they have cheaper TCO than diesel buses.

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