It won’t surprise anyone to discover that there is a difference between nostalgia and history. Of course there is.

But it is startlingly easy to blur the lines if you are not careful. Here is a (relatively trivial) case in point.

Who doesn’t love Perth’s old trolley buses? You can even purchase a book showing how delightful they were:

Tracks-by-the-Swan

So, it is reasonable to assume that they were loved in their day. Weren’t they?

Let’s ask legendary town planner, Harold Boas. He was responding to a 1936 proposal to extend the trolley bus service to Subiaco, which would involve the service using Mounts Bay Road or Kings Park Road. Harold’s opinion:

We have been battling to improve our highways, and now the Government comes along and is prepared to set us back a quarter of a century.

Ouch!

Basically, the trolley bus service, which had commenced in 1933, was seen as ruining the streetscape by disfiguring it with poles and overhead gear.

Nor did the anxiety die down. Two years after Boas’ damning statement, traders along St Georges Terrace were up in arms:

Strong protests continue to be made regarding the proposed use of St. Georges Terrace. General trend of those opinions is that the use of the Terrace as a trolley bus route would spoil one of Perth’s prized streets. On aesthetic grounds strong protests continue to be made.

So, while it’s wonderful to reflect nostalgically on trolley buses, don’t assume that anyone at the time actually liked the buggers.

4 thoughts on “That damnable trolley bus

  1. I think you’ll find the regret is that narrow minded fools like Boas were taken seriously, and as usual business owners could not see the woods for all the trees even back then. Across the planet light rail and trolley buses were ripped out on a whim in the name of “progress”, and across the planet cities are putting them back in regretting that they ever left.

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    1. Matt

      Not sure that I can quite side with your dislike of Harry. Not only did he single-handedly bring town planning to WA, you would probably have supported many of his policies.

      In 1929, he opposed commercial development on the foreshore, saying: “‘We have got one of the greatest natural advantages in Perth water which any city in the world could possess, It is backed by King’s Park. Our city should give us occasion for great pride. It is our home.”

      And Harry was also against commercial development along Mounts Bay Road, which would prevent its future beautification.

      Town planning, said Boas, is “foresight plus courage”. And who could disagree with that?

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  2. It is incorrect to say that the trams and trolley buses were disliked by the community in their day. It was recognised that light rail systems (trams) perform as a traffic regulator. They encourage patronage for that fact alone. Car drivers did not have a problem with the Perth trams, nor the Fremantle trams. The reason for their removal was solely operational cost. In the early fifties, the state government nationalised power generation which meant fantastic increases in electricity supply charges to the tramways. The trams were quick, had very high passenger capacities and had a well-planned route network. They are also pollution-free. As suburbs were established, the trams were put in. After the closure of the tram system in 1958, it was frequently commented that the traffic was worse. Trolley buses have one specific advantage over trams. This is their ability to “leapfrog”. Lowering the poles on a trolley bus enables others to pass. A tram cannot overtake unless it runs on “the wrong rail” – that is, in the opposite direction to the traffic. Not impossible, but disadvantageous. Because of the collector pole design, trolley buses can use each lane of a three-lane road. The wiring on a two-lane road was generally installed above the kerb-side lane, on a three-lane road, above the centre lane. You can see many pictures in the historic photograph databases of trolley buses with highly exaggerated collector pole angles. Although that looks precarious now, it its day it was normal operation. To say the the overhead electrical systems for either mode is unsightly is, in my opinion, a nonsense. Trolley buses in Perth were referred to as “the silent service”, because they were. Diesel-engined buses at the time were noisy, the exhaust pollution was significant and the brakes had a tendency to screech when operated. “Counter-EMF” (CEMF – Counter Electro-Motive Force) in DC motors means highly extended brake life as the motors operate as a brake. Trolley buses were seen as a prestige public transport system and residents were proud of them. The final nail in the coffin was ill-advised advice from overseas, particularly the United States, where the oil companies purchased many of the major tram systems, ran them down and failed to maintain the trackwork effectively. Indirectly, the love affair with private cars is what killed them off. And that’s not necessarily the owners. The private motor car became and remains a splendid cash cow for governments.

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    1. It wasn’t just town planners and traders who hated the poles and wires: here is an ordinary resident, a Council and a newspaper editorial:

      I think most residents do not realise that not only more heavy overhead wires would be stretching across these otherwise beautiful thoroughfares but, worse still, an extra number of ugly poles, set at different angles, would spoil any claim to beauty. Trolley bus lines may be all right in city streets but certainly disfigure horribly any decent residential suburb. (Letter to the editor, West Australian, 13 March 1936)

      Disapproval was expressed last night by the Claremont Municipal Council at the prospect of Stirling Highway being disfigured by the erection of an extra set of unsightly poles and overhead power wires for the purpose of the proposed installation of a trolley bus service. (West Australian, 24 March 1936)

      Claremont is the forest of poles being erected along Mount’s Bay road to carry the wires and electricity which this mode of transport entails.
      These gaunt-looking objects stretching towards the heavens will desecrate the magnificent views of the Swan River which have been the pride of Perth citizens and the envy of visitors from all parts of the world.
      It is a sad commentary that while efforts are being made to construct a scenic drive around our beautiful river the Government should be doing its worst to make the most delightful stretches under the lee of Mt Eliza ugly and hideous. But this seems the way of Governments. (Sunday Times editorial, 23 May 1937)

      Perhaps, later when people got used to the trolley buses, they came to accept the poles and wires. But it is clear that they were very unpopular in the 1930s.

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