Saturday, 7 July 2012

Buses electric in Nottingham

Nottingham City Council owns 81% of Nottingham City Transport. It also owns sixty buses so that it can operate its own Link network. Logic says that these services should all be operated by NCT and any shortfall in fare income should come from NCT. In June 2012, the City Council went out to public tender 'to purchase up to 20 single or double-deck buses using either electric (zero emission) or diesel-hybrid technology'.

I am sure that there are plenty of folk in Nottingham who know far more than me about these things, but it does seem a little crazy to me that the 1985 Transport Act still lets the City Council own a bus company, operate buses and run subsidised services, but that it cannot do these things together. Then, of course, there is the matter of Nottingham bus maps which I  blogged about in April this year.

Another thing which amazes me is how few people know that 'electric' buses first operated in Nottingham eighty-five years ago — they were known by various names, including 'railless traction' and 'trackless trams', but their most common name was 'trolleybuses'. Nottingham's trolleybus system was one of the largest in England and lasted until 1966, by which time diesel fuel was cheap and bus manufacturing companies like AEC and Leyland were manufacturing reliable buses in such large quantities that they were cheaper than trolleybuses.

I grew up in Wembley and with trolleybuses. I used a 662 to get to work in neighbouring Harlesden six days a week. They were part of my childhood and rarely did a week go by without using a trolleybus to go shopping in Harlesden or to visit relatives in Tooting. They last ran in my part of London in early-January 1962. I remember it well. I was seventeen and just after Christmas 1961 it snowed for a week and I was busy being a teenager, out and about, at parties and doing stuff in between going to work. Then one day, I went to work on a No.18 bus instead, which simply had its Sunday service from Wembley to London Bridge Station turned into a daily service. Even then it didn't make sense to get rid of a form of transport that didn't emit smoke or fumes — my first job as a trainee animal technician introduced me to the awful consequences of smoking and inhaling diesel fumes. I looked after rats who were subjected to daily doses of both and then I dissected them for my professor to inspect (I left after two years having been party to the continuous 'verification' of the obvious once too often and found a job in TV shop).

Unfortunately, I didn't take any photographs of the demise of the 662, so I have used a pic from a book I own, Trolleybuses in North-West London, which is still published by the London Trolleybus Preservation Society (£16 from: LTPS, 19 Fieldfare, Sandy, Bedfordshire, SG19 2UZ). Old bus photographs are fantastic records of social history: the way we dressed and how shops used to look, plus the cars and lorries etc.

I last rode on a trolleybus in public (as opposed to a museum) just after Christmas 1969, the year I moved from Harrow to Birmingham. My grandfather had come to stay and we went off to Walsall in search of a trolleybus. Again, I had no camera, but it is a day etched in my memory.

By the time we arrived in Nottingham in 1979 trolleybuses had been gone for thirteen years, so I never saw the scene shown in the pic below:

Another pic from a book I own:  The Heyday of the Trolleybus by Howard Piltz, published by Ian Allen in 1994. The pic was taken by the author and although the book is no longer listed by Ian Allen, you can find it on Amazon and e-Bay.

If you want to learn more, then you can do no better than read Nottingham Trolleybuses by David Bowler, published by Trolleybooks in 2006. In truth, Nottingham's trolleybus network, whilst large, never met its planned extent and came to a halt in the mid-1930s as buses were  used to replace trams instead. However, there were still trolleybus poles along the Derby Road in the 1980s and I remember coming to Nottingham in the early-1970s and seeing an electric bus. You can see a pic of this in Nottingham 2 by G H F Atkins, published by Venture Publications in 2002.

Then in the 1990s trams were introduced to Manchester and Sheffield, with Nottingham having already decided to follow suit. Planning began in late-1980s and it took until 2004 before the first trams came into service. Nottingham City Council were, and remain, tenacious when it comes to public transport in the city.  At the time I did argue for trolleybuses, but trams were seen as 'sexy' and appealing to male motorists.

This week trolleybuses have been given their biggest boost in eighty years, with the decision by the Coalition Government to fund a new trolleybus network for Leeds which should be running by 2018 (why do these things take so long?). Trolleybuses with overhead wires may, though, be about to give way to a new kind of electric trolley bus — one that has electric motors fitted to each wheel and uses overhead power points instead of continuous wires to draw down the electricity needed to move it along.  The kind of buses Nottingham is planning to buy have large batteries which have to be charged before use and which run out after so many miles. Being able to charge an electric bus continuously would enable the bus to remain in service all day.

The website Trolleybus UK sets out all the arguments with sections devoted to Leeds and London proposalsThe pic below shows a wireless trolleybus in Shanghai:

The bus has a pantograph on its roof which only needs to be in contact with a power point for a minute or so, then it can continue to the next power point. This reduces the need for overhead wiring — which makes it easy to understand why this such an attractive concept. No doubt as the technology improves, the waiting time will reduce. Then there is talk of using under road 'induction' cables (industrial type versions of the small domestic systems many of us now use to charge our toothbrushes and smart-phones). Again, this is a modern version of what many urban tram systems were using 100 years ago in cities like London, where the overhead power cables were replaced by a third middle rail which allowed a 'shoe' to collect the electricity needed to power the tram.

A Cambridge design concept company, Design Triangle,  is also promoting its own version of this wireless technology and is seeking funders / partners to help them build this futuristic trolleybus:

The interior looks very much like that of a modern tram or commuter train:

And what does all this mean for Nottingham?  Well, many European countries use trams / light rail alongside trolleybuses and motor-buses to maximise the efficiency of their networks, with trolleybuses providing high-capacity links to trams and buses providing 'link' services. Perhaps Nottingham will take its interest in 'electric' buses a stage further and consider re-introducing trolleybuses. This bendy green trolleybus from the Trolleybus UK website is elegant and stylish. The Derby Road could handle this vehicle with ease and provide a emission free alternative to buses between Long Eaton and the city centre. Now there's a thought…