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Trolley buses: a historical transit lesson

The 14 Hastings streetcar: looking north on Granville from Robson, 1950. Photo by Vic Sharman.

The 14 Hastings streetcar: looking north on Granville from Robson, 1950.
Photo by Vic Sharman.

When I moved out here from Toronto nearly two years ago now, one of the first things I did was explore the city. How, you ask? On the bus! So I hopped on a bus to adventure around my new city.

At least, I thought it was a bus. It had large, yellow tubes attached to wires overhead. It reminded me of my streetcars on the TTC… but no tracks. What a strange beast this was. I was informed by a fellow rider that the beast was, indeed, a trolley bus! Huh. Who knew?

But how long has it been around and why do we use it? Being a former journalist and the daughter of a history teacher, I needed to know the answers.

Trolley buses have been in operation in Metro Vancouver since 1948 and the first routes were replacements for the old streetcar routes in the region.

We actually have 188 40-foot conventional and 74 60-foot articulated New Flyer E40LFR low-floor trolleys operated by the Coast Mountain Bus Company. That means we have the second largest and most modern electric trolley fleet in all of North America!

Trolley buses in downtown Vancouver.

Trolley buses in downtown Vancouver.

Each trolley utilizes a network of overhead wires that span 315 kms through Vancouver and Burnaby. Because we’re using electricity, it’s a very environmentally friendly transit option. Yay for greener transportation!

You can still see a few of Vancouver’s first trolley buses manufactured by the Canadian Car and FoundryJ.G. Brill Company. They have been preserved by the Transit Museum Society out of CMBC’s Surrey transit centre. Namely, a 1947 T44 No. 2040 and a 1954 T48A Nos. 2414 and 2416.

If you’re as interested as I am in this cool vehicle hybrid, check out the Edmonton Trolley Coalition for pictures and information on trolley buses from around the world.

Feel free to impart this historical transit trivia to fellow riders the next time you take a trolleybus!

Author: Adrienne Coling


14 Comments

  • By Dennis, March 13, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

    Toronto used to have trolley buses too.

    http://transit.toronto.on.ca/trolleybus/9005.shtml

  • By Adrienne Coling, March 13, 2015 @ 12:55 pm

    Hi Dennis,
    I’ve seen a few in person doing a news story years ago in Toronto! Too bad they don’t have them anymore but the streetcars are still around :)

  • By Charlotte, March 13, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    Who/what determines which routes use trolleys and which use regular buses? I’m curious because since I moved here six years ago, the 16 (the bus I most regularly take) has used trolleys. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that the route seems to be using exclusively regular buses.

    Thanks!

  • By Adrienne Coling, March 13, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    Hi Charlotte. I take the 16 too AND I’ve been noticing the same thing! I have sent an email to CMBC so I’ll let you know what I find out :)

  • By Andrew, March 13, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    Hi Charlotte and Adrienne, the 16 bus has been using regular buses for the past few months due to watermian construction. It should be back to using trolley buses in a week or so.

  • By Adrienne Coling, March 13, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

    Well, there you go! Thanks Andrew!! :)

  • By Dale, March 13, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

    Trolley Buses: a(n) historical transit lesson.
    Would you like to charter a bus from the Legacy Fleet?
    See our web site at http://www.trams.ca

  • By Joe, March 15, 2015 @ 6:56 pm

    Charlotte, far as I know, the current trolley routes are mostly historical and most of them replaced streetcar lines. There haven’t been any new trolley routes in a very long time. Hastings, Cambie, Arbutus, Renfrew, Nanaimo, Dunbar, Main, Downtown, Broadway, Oak, Granville, Victoria, Kingsway, and 41st Avenue. Of those, 1 had its wires removed (Cambie) and the other, 41st Avenue, hasn’t had revenue trolleys since the 41 was extended to UBC in 90s.

  • By Adrienne Coling, March 16, 2015 @ 10:23 am

    Hi Everyone!
    Thanks for all the great comments!
    Here’s the more in depth answer from CMBC:

    “The 16 route is a trolley route, however we have had to dieselize it (trade out the vehicles to diesel buses) since September as there has been a major construction project on the western portion of the route. The project involved water pipe replacement in the Angus Drive section of the route, and the buses could not use the existing roadway as the wires had to come down for the construction equipment to operate safely. The nearest wires for the route to use were Granville Street, which would result in a large loss of service area where there is no alternate bus route available. To ensure we have service in the general area we go to the diesel fleet and use nearby roads that can handle buses.

    As for the determination of trolley routes they are historical, and based on wire location. We have a fixed trolley wire infrastructure and while we have added some turning wire over time, we really have not added a significant amount of running line over the years so the trolley service area is fixed. Trolley infrastructure is quite costly, as it includes not only wire and poles but rectifier stations for power.”

  • By ;-), March 16, 2015 @ 11:24 pm

    I’ll add when trolleys were extended to Stanley Park… there was a lot of debate whether to have dirty diesels vs the blight of wires in the trees.

  • By Cliff, March 19, 2015 @ 10:00 pm

    Are there any future plans for trolleybus expansion?

    There’s a report out there that states if the Canada Line wasn’t built, the trolleybus system would have been expanded into Richmond and to the airport over a bus only No 4 Rd – Cambie Street Bridge.

    Other than that, I haven’t heard about anything else. Is extending the wires along Marine Drive a future priority for TransLink? How about the wires on Lougheed Highway where they currently end at Boundary Loop?

    Is Vancouver’s trolleybus system to remain the same for the long term future?

  • By Adrienne Coling, March 20, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

    Hi Cliff,
    Thanks for your comments and questions! Below are some answers for you from CMBC.

    We are working with the City to provide additional wire in the downtown area to offer more routing options. However, there are no current plans to expand beyond Vancouver at this time.

    Years ago an extension of the line along Hastings into Burnaby was proposed. While a great many people love the trolleys there are as many that feel the infrastructure in somewhat ugly with all the wires overhead and it’s not just a case of putting in wires. The network must be designed and engineered so that posts can support the wires and carry the power, that switches are properly located so that poles do not get lost etc. Trolleys not only need overhead infrastructure but also require power, which is not the standard household power. We have to install rectifier stations that convert the power for trolley usage. These are costly (depending on size, location etc $3M and upward). In addition we have special line crews to repair and maintain the system.

    Marine Drive extension.
    This was looked at but there are issues with the height below the Knight Street Bridge – there is insufficient room under the structure to accommodate the wire hangers and necessary overhead.

    Lougheed Hwy
    No, this area is now served by the Millennium Line and the nature of the road design does not lend itself to bus service. There are numerous driveways and no sidewalks in much of the area.

    Electric buses have a long life span and our trolleys are relatively new (2006 and later). We would not be looking to replace until 2025. As we always do we will review current technology available at that time.

  • By elevtechlift, June 13, 2015 @ 10:48 pm

    Are there plans in the future to make a trolleybus route a B-Line route along with purchasing more articulated trolleybuses and expanding it beyond Metrotown? It would be cool for a trolleybus route to become the first electrified B-Line route.

  • By elevtechlift, September 12, 2015 @ 10:13 pm

    I would like to see the trolley bus network be extended in the future to other routes such as the 155, 145, 143 (although going to be discontinued due to the opening of the Evergreen Line, still have the infrastructure in place for expansions into the Tri-Cities and more where local conventional routes can be fully electrified including 188), 135, 130 (between Kootenay Loop, Hastings, and Metrotown Station), 123, 112, 106, and 101 as those are on busy roads, steep hills, passes through a hospital, and is essential to reduce further emissions.

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