The Trolleybus in Britain
1911-1972


Interest in 'Trackless Trolley Systems' started in the early 1900's when many such systems were introduced abroad. Deputations from Manchester, Leeds and Bradford, amongst others, all travelled to Europe to inspect systems there, and the first British company, the Railless Electric Traction Company Limited, was formed to promote the idea.

Eager to join this potentially lucrative market, several companies obtained British licences for European trolley systems, including the Railless Company, who held the licence for the Max Scheimann system, which consisted of two under-running trolley poles with collector wheels that were attached to the roof of the trolleybus. The overhead consisted of two wires, 13 inches apart, one of which was negative and one positive, in the conventional tramway style. Other systems on offer at the time were;
The 'Cedes-Stoll' system, which had the trolley running along the top of the two wires and connected to the trolleybus by a flexible cable that was towed along behind. When two trolleybuses met they had to exchange trolleys to enable them to pass. A British Company, Cedes Electric Traction Limited, held the British licence for this system.
The 'Bremen' system, which had the two wires, placed one above the other with the uppermost wire being the negative. The wheeled-trolley ran along the top wire and a bow collector slid under the lower wire. It was connected to the trolleybus by a flexible cable and, again, they had to be exchanged if two vehicles were to pass each other. The Brush Company held the British licence for this system.
The 'Filovia' system, which used a single trolley pole fitted with a wheeled trolley that ran under both horizontal trolley wires.

In 1911, both Leeds and Bradford introduced trolleybuses to the Railless design, and in the period to 1914 a further 8 systems were opened. At this point the onset of World War I had a dramatic effect on the development of the trolleybus. Since most of the equipment had been manufactured in Germany, the enactment of the Trading With the Enemy Act, of 1914, meant that spares became unobtainable. In 1916, as a result of this, and other difficulties, the Railless Electric Traction Company went into receivership, eventually being sold to Short Brothers, who formed a new company Railless Ltd., to develop the system further.

By 1921 other suppliers had started to introduce trolleybuses based on the standard commercial petrol chassis adapted to take electric motors. The earlier Railless design, using tramway ideas and equipment gradually went out of favour and, in 1926, Short Brothers decided to concentrate on more lucrative aspects of their business and the Railless company bowed out of trolleybus manufacture. At the same time, English Electric, who had supplied much of the electrical equipment for Railless, decided to provide its own chassis. An experimental vehicle was built using a Leyland chassis, although subsequently English Electric produced its own chassis. It was not entirely successful and in 1930 a joint venture was undertaken with AEC, who would supply the chassis, whilst English Electric would supply the bodywork and electrical equipment.

Guy Motors had also entered the trolleybus market in 1926 with its three-axle double-deck vehicle, which was to set the trend for the next few years.

Anxious not to miss out, Leyland Motors began to produce its first trolleybuses in 1932, after joining forces with the General Electric Company, who supplied the electrical equipment.

In 1935 Crossley Motors joined the growing band of trolleybus manufacturers when it supplied Manchester and Ashton-under-Lyne Corporations with models, and in 1936 Daimler started to produce four- and six-wheel trolleybuses.

The following year, 1937, demand for British trolleybuses had reached a peak, and 24 trolleybuses were on display at the Commercial Motor Show in that year.

The onset of World War II in 1939 resulted in some trolleybus manufacturers diverting their production to the war effort. As a result the Sunbeam factory at Wolverhampton was chosen to provide wartime replacements for many of the ageing trolleybuses, which could be obtained under either the Sunbeam or Karrier badge. Undertakings qualifying for new wartime deliveries were required to sell their ageing trolleybuses to undertakings that did not qualify, and, in many cases, the more troublesome and less reliable vehicles were passed on first.

At the end of the war, the Sunbeam operations were sold to Brockhouse & Company, who sold the company again, after re-naming it the Sunbeam Trolleybus Company, in 1948 to Guy Motors, who ceased manufacturing its own range of trolleybuses and marketed the Sunbeam range instead.

A major nail in the coffin of the trolleybus was the nationalisation of the electricity industry in 1948. Up until that time many undertakings also owned their local electricity company, allowing them to supply electricity cheaply. Once nationalisation was complete, these operators found themselves paying more for their electricity supplies and the trolleybus became less viable. Consequently the trolleybus market steadily declined and by 1951, Crossley, Guy and Daimler had all ceased manufacture of trolleybuses, although a new company, British United Traction Ltd., formed in 1946 with the amalgamation of the AEC and Leyland trolleybus activities, and Sunbeam continued to offer trolleybuses.

In 1962 Sunbeam produced their final trolleybuses for the British market, supplied to Bournemouth Corporation, and in 1964 the BUT factory built its last trolleybuses.

The sight of trolleybuses in service declined steadily thereafter until, in March 1972, the final trolleybuses in passenger carrying service, at Bradford, ceased to run, bringing to an end the trolleybus era. 


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