The above illustration is a persuasive transcription of the eternally grimy world I recall from early childhood – city centres where the streetlights often gleamed all day in a vain battle with dense industrial fog. The most radiant colours to be seen were those applied to commercial vehicles or generated by neon signage. The silent presence of the trolleybus was typical and idiosyncratic municipal paint schemes brought welcome splashes of colour to relieve the urban gloom. Trips to South Shields were graced by Cornishware blue and cream while in Newcastle the streets were illuminated by an arresting egg-yolk yellow and cream. A later recollection is of cycling down the Edgware Road at the age of 13 alongside the last of London’s impressively large Corporate Red trolleybuses. All this reminiscence is the result of a recent visit to Germany where the trolleybus is alive and well some four decades since its eradication from British streets. Together with steam locomotives and trams, the trolleybus was a victim of the wave of unusual enthusiasm for progress and modernisation that gripped the British political class in the 1960s. In Look at Life short films from the late 1950s and 1960s, the commentator’s plummy tones are often heard deploring the sad fact that Britain is a long way behind “our friends on the Continent” in terms of motorway construction, bridge building, ship building, cargo handling facilities in ports and railway modernisation – all signifying a growing awareness that the quality of British infrastructure was massively inferior to that of its European competitors.
History records that the post-war UK economy went into a trance for a decade or so, protected from harsh economic realities by catering to captive markets in Commonwealth countries while chronically under-investing in innovation and productivity. During the 1960s policymakers responded with bright shiny visions of modernisation but clumsy application ensured that the country experienced all the disadvantages of half-baked planning and rushed implementation, especially in housing and transport. Enormous sums of money were wasted on untested schemes for the nationalised railway as the network switched from steam to diesel and electric power with all traces of old-fashioned steam eliminated by 1968. Pride in being the first European system to achieve this was short lived as it rapidly emerged that much of the new motive power was seriously flawed and large numbers of almost-new diesel locomotives had to be scrapped due to serious design failings, problems with reliability and maintenance issues. Meanwhile European railways were engaged in a measured and phased transition from steam power – on a visit to Germany in 1974 I travelled on several steam-hauled passenger trains – taking time to evaluate and optimise the performance of new technologies.
At the start of the 1960s there were 26 trolleybus operators in the UK but despite almost silent running on rubber tyres and zero emissions they were deemed to be obsolete and anachronistic. In the rush to modernise, these systems rapidly closed down until in 1972 the very last trolleybus was retired from the streets of Bradford, leaving the diesel-engined bus in a monopoly position. Elsewhere the trolleybus has survived into the present – in some instances because a lack of public investment inhibited the development of anything better (former Iron Curtain countries) but more often because appreciation of the environmental benefits persuaded transport planners to upgrade and expand their existing systems. Trolleybuses have been successfully integrated into rapid transit systems in many major cities around the world including Athens, Vancouver, Seattle, Lyon and Zurich. By 2018 the citizens of Leeds should be travelling through the city on their own brand-new trolleybus network, thus resurrecting a tradition that died 46 years ago in nearby Bradford.
The photographic images below come from Solingen and Wuppertal, the postcards are from Moscow and Seattle – the rest are illustrations for advertising.