• Trackless Memories

  • General discussion about fallen trolley and interurban lines in North America, past and present.
General discussion about fallen trolley and interurban lines in North America, past and present.

Moderator: Aa3rt

  by 3rdrail
I wrote this up for the Connecticut Trolley Museum a while back, and thought that it might be enjoyed here as well, as well as stimulating other trackless buffs to comment on their memories.


By Paul Joyce

However referred to, the trackless trolley, trolley coach, or trolley bus, a creature that has been around as long as trolleys themselves, is a very misunderstood mode of transportation. Often labeled a “bus”, it is not. Its motive power, an electric motor(s), sometimes is thought to be based upon internal combustion. It is not. Its abilities and riding characteristics are very much misunderstood by motorists who, often are of the opinion that the trolley coach has the same freedom of direction as they do. It does not.

What the vehicles do possess is a highly dependable and strong, quick starting electric motor which is generally universally impervious to climate, be it winter in Montreal or summer in Honolulu. Trolley coaches are generally equipped with trolley pole mechanisms which are generally longer than their steel-wheeled counterparts, complete with swiveling harps, and are designed to adapt to radical differences of car body angles versus overhead, with more flexibility than a conventional trolley would have. This flexibility usually will allow a trolley coach to travel at least a full lane outside of its running overhead, a distinct advantage when traveling through congested city streets loaded with double-parked trucks. Being independent of liquid fuel, it has limitless energy, and always has a “full tank” as long as poles are connected to “juice”. Aside from possible emergency back-up power and lighting, batteries are of lesser importance in the TT‘s than on conventional buses. Some modern versions, such as the “dual-mode” trolley-buses used on Boston’s Silver Line, have the advantage of the trolley-bus efficiency, plus the freedom of direction of a conventional bus, when needed.

Having a European background, trolley buses were first introduced in Berlin in 1882 by Dr. Ernest Werner von Siemens, a name still synonymous with electric transit vehicles. Through experimentation in Germany and Paris, England followed with widespread usage, often utilizing a second floor on its “double-decked” trolley buses. The coaches of the time were so silent with their simplified engineering, that many an unwary pedestrian never knew what hit them, thus coining the phrase “the silent death”.

Soon, many American cities began purchasing the trolley coaches from companies such as Pullman-Standard, Marmon-Herrington, Brill, Twin Coach, and many others, as their reliability and cost-effectiveness was realized. In the mid-20th century, trackless trolleys were built by the thousands, from General Motors’ single (hybrid) coach production (had the tires - didn’t rely on diesel fuel See United States v National City Lines, Inc.- 1949), to the largest builder of trackless trolleys - Pullman-Standard, with 1,863 vehicles built between 1932 and 1951. Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Staten Island NY, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Dayton, Denver, Des Moines, Detroit, Honolulu, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Knoxville, Louisville, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, Portland OR, Providence RI, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Toledo, Topeka, were among the major cities having trackless operation at one time. They were ideal on light to medium load routes. They were a vehicle ahead of their time, and one which does not emit polluting exhaust, consistent with our current efforts towards environmental air pollution control.

The powerful, pleasant sounding, whining motors, have shown themselves to be excellent at hill climbing, far better at it, in fact, than any diesel bus. It was this fact that led to an attempted conversion of cable car routes in San Francisco by Muni’s Marmon-Herrington TC-40’s in 1947. The TC-40’s had the ability to boost horsepower at the press of a button for steep grades, which increased the setting of their current governor on the car’s master controller. They also were equipped with advanced emergency braking capabilities triggered by either the deadman control or an electrical failure. Some cable lines were converted, as all probably would have been if not for the historic sensitivities of cable car “activists” who were able to save three currently operating lines. After the smoke cleared from the attempted coup, the trolley busses and cable cars were able to happily co-exist, with San Francisco currently maintaining a large system of trackless trolley routes throughout the city.

Trackless trolleys are trolleys. They are trolleys that run on rubber tires. They are no more buses than are the rubber-tired subway cars of Paris and Montreal. Because of their insulating rubber tires, they require double overhead, so as to enable a return ground current to feed through the second wire, whereas a traditional trolley’s return runs through its running rails. In Massachusetts, trackless trolleys do not need to be registered, as do buses, and operators do not legally require the possession of a Massachusetts Drivers License to operate the cars, as they are deemed to be street railway equipment. (The MBTA requires all operators to be licensed by internal regulation. Being immune to state vehicle inspection produced a fleet of Pullman-Standard trackless-trolleys in the 70’s to sometimes appear more like “Toonerville Trolleys” with headlights at 90 degree vertical angles to one another and body panels in various degrees of post-factory contour, in the era of the MBTA’s then “fiscally conservative”, rarely seen preventative maintenance program. But, in spite of it all, the coaches ran, ran hard, ran long and ran well!

Historically, the vehicles have had a less than rock-solid permanency of route, being somewhere between the general solidarity of rail routes and the sometimes temporary routes of bus lines. This has in part, most likely been due to the fact that overhead alone is a lot easier to disassemble than is overhead and rail. Other mitigating factors have taken place historically, which have caused otherwise efficient, new, and popular trackless trolley systems to be uprooted.

One such case was the matter of the Arborway Lines on Boston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, a heavily patronized system which extended public transportation from the MTA’s Main Line (now the Orange Line), and the Arborway trolley line (Green Line), south to Roslindale, West Roxbury, and Hyde Park. Ridership consisted of regular patrons going to work or shop in town or kids on their way to school. In addition, the Charles River line was used at a time, bringing families to the Charles Rivers’ banks for swimming on hot summer days. Replacing trolleys between 1951-1953, three lines left from the Arborway and Forest Hills Station. They were: The # 32 Route - “Cleary Square which ran south down Hyde Park Avenue, a mostly straight route with few hills, terminating in Cleary Square, the location of a commercial area and the Hyde Park New Haven Rail Road station. The #34 Route - “Dedham Line” - which ran south down Washington Street, through Roslindale Square- a residential “village” and commercial area, and up the steep incline of Bellevue Hill, the highest point in the City of Boston, continuing to the Boston-Dedham town line. The #36 Route - “Charles River”, which like the Dedham Line Route, also followed Washington Street south to Roslindale Square, but then veered westerly onto Belgrade Avenue, following through to West Roxbury’s Centre Street, and ending at the Charles River at the Boston-Dedham town line. With their dependable traction motors, and in winter, studded snow tires, their ruggedness was without question, by far surpassing the performance of the busses which replaced them. Comparing the trolley coaches to conventional trolleys, they both had the advantage of an electric motor, with the trackless trolley enjoying the greater traction and stopping ability of a rubber tire on asphalt versus a trolley’s metal wheel on a metal rail.

Around the Arborway, every type of transit vehicle could be seen. Trackless trolleys shared the waiting station and live overhead of PCC trolleys traveling through the yard. Present were buses of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, as well as those of the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company. Above the lower level of Forest Hills Station, where the noted three trackless trolley routes entered a block from the Arborway, ran the MTA’s Main Line Elevated trains northerly through downtown Boston, terminating in Everett. Both the Arborway and Forest Hills were a thriving transit hub at the time, and I wished that I had had the luxury of a camera in those early days to capture some of it on film. Forest Hills Station, now relocated to align with the Northeast Corridor, is still a thriving transportation hub. The Arborway currently is used mainly for the storage of CNG busses in its reduced yard, no longer used by riders since abandonment of the Arborway trolley line in 1985, and the new Forest Hills Station taking over “end-of-line” terminal status from the Arborway two years later.

The MTA ran new Pullman-Standard Trolley Coaches on its Arborway routes, most of which carried the left hand door. Thirty coaches of a 1951 forty-foot long order with 44 seats , having been put in service in September of 1951 at the Arborway, were based at the yard immediately after receipt by the MTA from the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company of Worcester, Massachusetts. These coaches, numbered 8483 through 8512, were the order in which the Connecticut Trolley Museum’s 8483, 8488 and 8494 were a part. Additionally, other orders were used as well, among them, some of the 38 coaches which had been purchased by the MTA from Providence’s United Transit Company, numbered 8573 through 8610. Most routine repairs and maintenance of the cars could be performed at the Arborway’s Lotus Place Shop, which had a bay for the trolley coaches. Since there was no physical overhead connection between the other trackless trolley shops at Cambridge’s Bennett Street Car House or the Everett Car House, where major work was performed, it was convenient to have a localized shop.

The Arborway lines had a short life-span of only a few years, culminating by the end of 1958. Apparently, after making a large investment in the removal of trolley track, and the subsequent installation of trackless-trolley overhead on the Arborway lines seven years previously, the Metropolitan Transit Authority deemed the Arborway coaches, most equipped with left hand doors, needed for the Cambridge lines. Service using trolley coaches was beginning in 1958 to operate out from the narrow confines of Cambridge’s Harvard Square Tunnel to Boston, Cambridge, Belmont, and Watertown destinations. Left-hand doors were needed for passage from/into the coaches in the tunnel. Of the coaches which weren’t equipped with left hand doors, most were retro-fitted. So away to Cambridge went the Pullman-Standard TT’s, and down came the Arborway Line system’s wires, still relatively pristine after only five to seven years of use. A large order for Mack C-49DT diesel buses took their place which would then serve the Arborway lines for the next twelve years. The tough Pullman coaches would serve another nineteen years on the Cambridge system, surviving seven years in service longer than the new Mack buses which replaced them on the Arborway system, in spite of the fact that the trolley buses were seven years older than the Macks! In 1977, at 26 years of age, the venerable Pullman-Standard coaches were replaced by fifty new trackless trolleys manufactured by Flyer Industries on theCambridge system. (The Flyer’s actually beat the Pullman’s record for longevity by surviving 29 years in service, retiring in 2004. Currently, sixty Neoplan trackless trolleys serve the Cambridge system, the last original Boston trackless trolley system still in operation. Of the sixty, thirty-two are dual-mode.)

As a youngster in the Boston of the late 1950’s, I remember the thrill of a rear seat ride with head tilted upwards watching the connection between the swiveling trolley shoe and overhead wires. 8300’s were to be avoided, due to a vision- obstructing shelf between the back of the rear seat and window. 84 and 8500’s were cool - their seat backs were flush with the rear window and perfect for a young traction buff to follow the electrical connection action as we traveled along. A high-point was traveling through an overhead turnout, complete with booming and metallic striking audio effects, the result of arcing carbon trolley pole shoes colliding with cast bronze alloy frogs. The piece de resistance however, (I’m ashamed to say) was when the poles “split a switch”, and went wildly side to side, accompanied by booms, crashes, flashes, and retriever rope convulsions. It was better than a night at the Norwood Arena Demolition Derby! (This was pretty common during the 50’s-70‘s, while modern systems seem to hardly ever de-wire with modern overhead turnouts.)

In 2006, trolley busses are making a comeback, with many cities opting for the environmentally-friendly and dependable vehicles on their new transit orders, most of whom now regret their past abandonment of the TT system. In an era where most trolley private right of way has similarly long since been abandoned and now used in a completely different manner, trackless trolley systems are compatible with street running, and with the exception of line installation, need no further road construction. Conversely, in Boston, an abandoned subway tunnel underneath Tremont Street, unused for the past forty-five years, is being considered to be reopened as a route for trolley busses on the Silver Line in a novel approach of using what is already there. The ventilation restrictions of a tunnel built in 1897, make a trolley bus or trolley an excellent solution, with their exhaust-free motors. Also, “track records” for the coaches, which generally last considerably longer than their internal combustion counterparts, added with the ever increasing cost of diesel fuel, make electric propulsion more and more attractive to transit companies. It seems that the age of electric transport is yet to come fully of age, however it would seem quite apparent that that age is dawning, bringing with it a resurgence of interest in electric conveyances, both private and public.

Many, some hilarious, anecdotal stories have come from trolley years on the Boston system, one such story involving a trackless trolley. It seems that an operator, who shall remain nameless, dead-heading a trackless trolley inbound, entering Forest Hills on the last run of the night, observed a disabled truck blocking the entrance to Forest Hills Station, the route’s second to last stop. The operator was tired and did not relish waiting three hours for a wrecker to pull the truck out of its way, so with no passengers on board (and thus no need to stop at the station), the operator thought quickly of an immediate solution. (Forest Hills Station was an enclosed station, with the overhead entering it‘s confines. On both sides of the station, was Washington Street, which was used by all other traffic. No overhead wires were present outside the station on these exterior sides.) So, our quick thinking operator gunned his accelerator and headed up Washington Street, outside the terminal and it‘s overhead, breaking off his connection to the overhead as he did so, amidst a spectacular display of electrically arcing special effects on this cold winters night, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 4th of July at the Esplanade. After leaving the power supply of its overhead, the coach without power, was able to coast the 600 feet to the other side of the terminal, where the operator smoothly rolled his coach back under the street wire just outside the exit from Forest Hills Station, where he quickly (and stealthfully) re-established the connection. He then finished his run by turning into the Arborway, where he called it a night. This is a true story. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and believe me, no official documentation will be found!
  by JimBoylan
Everett Wood of Copetown Car Works, drove trackless trolleys and other vehicles for Indianapolis (Ind.) Rwys. Once he encountered a fire messing up the wired street, one block before the line turned to join another set of wires on a parallel route. Since the other line was at a lower elevation, he got an idea. He started to turn the coach into a very narrow side street, got out and pulled the poles, then coasted down the hill to the other set of wires. The passengers were quite pleased at avoiding the blockade. Some days later, a large man boarded his coach, and greeted Everett with, "So you're the guy who took my wife down a back alley"!
  by JimBoylan
One rumor about the shift of coaches from Arborway routes to Cambridge routes was to allow Cambridge PCCs to be used on the new Rte. D Riverside line (formerly a Boston & Albany railroad commuter branch), without buying more 2nd hand PCCs or keeping pre-PCC trolleys in service. The underground trackless trolley platforms at Cambridge had been built for double ended trolleys, which had doors on both sides, and could tolerate left hand side station platforms. The single ended PCCs and trackless trolleys had extra doors on the left side, but the new buses didn't.
  by walt
I remember, during the two summers back in the middle 1960's, when I worked for the old Philadelphia Transportation Co ( PTC) as a traffic checker that we hated to get an assignment doing a check on one of the trackless trolley routes. Those things were so quiet that they'd sneak up on you. ( For those who may not know, traffic checkers are the guys and gals you might see on a street corner with a clipboard and a railroad watch The job of a checker was to record the arrival time of transit vehicles on a particular route at a particular location as well as the persons boarding, leaving, and on each vehicle--- checkers were stationed all along a route, at major stops and transfer points, and from the check sheets collected from all of the checkers, the performance of all the vehicles on a route as well as the passenger loads could be determined).
With the diesel buses and the streetcars, you could hear them as they approached the intersection, so you didn't have to keep your eyes focused on the street. The Trackless Trolleys were so quiet that if you weren't paying close attention, they'd arrive at the intersection before you had the opportunity to record the exact arrival time. ( Arrival time was recorded to either the half minute or near second, using the opening of the doors as the actual arrival-- so you needed to actually see the operator open the doors).
  by 3rdrail
JimBoylan wrote:One rumor about the shift of coaches from Arborway routes to Cambridge routes was to allow Cambridge PCCs to be used on the new Rte. D Riverside line (formerly a Boston & Albany railroad commuter branch), without buying more 2nd hand PCCs or keeping pre-PCC trolleys in service. The underground trackless trolley platforms at Cambridge had been built for double ended trolleys, which had doors on both sides, and could tolerate left hand side station platforms. The single ended PCCs and trackless trolleys had extra doors on the left side, but the new buses didn't.
I had heard that there were other reasons as well, some not as quite as practical. It was most definitely a tremendous waste of money with the purchase of a large order of trolley coaches and a large hardware and power installation on three lines, two of which bordered the town of Dedham, that it should last seven years max before it was all removed. In a way, the overhead was partly already installed, as the three lines that were ultimately used by trackless trolleys had been streetcar routes previously, and much of the overhead was already there. In some instances, all there was to do was to install a second ground wire to accomodate the trackless trolleys. Of course, electrical overhead turnouts had to be re-worked.
There are, here and there, vestiges of the system still left in Roslindale, such as a few trackless poles left and the turnaround on outer Washington Street between Maplewood and Heron Streets. I can recall as a small kid that during the wintertime that there was no better hill climbing vehicle to get up over Roslindale's Clarendon Hill, the highest point in the city of Boston, on the Dedham Line route than a trackless trolley outfitted with winter chains on it's rear tires. Aside from the occasional de-wirement at a turnout, there were few breakdowns during service.
  by Gerry6309
I recall the trolley wire remaining on the Arborway routes up to the wholesale abandonments of the early sixties. The plan may have been to replace the trackless on that division with new or used coaches at some point. When Ed Dana was replaced by Tom McLernon, everything changed, and only the lack of catalytic mufflers at the time saved the four Cambridge lines.
  by 3rdrail
Gerry6309 wrote: The plan may have been to replace the trackless on that division with new or used coaches at some point. When Ed Dana was replaced by Tom McLernon, everything changed, and only the lack of catalytic mufflers at the time saved the four Cambridge lines.
At that time, the MTA went in big-time for the Mack C49 DT busses. I can only assume that they liked the idea of ease of maintenance with a large homogenous fleet as opposed to an eclectic one, which was a shame. A Pullman and Flyer trackless was (is) basically two Brill "Bernie" motors synched up - nothing more complicated. The electric motor runs rings around it's diesel counterpart in terms of power, longevity, and immunity towards cold weather. A trackless trolley encased in a block of ice will start up, light up, and go instantaneously ! Call the wrecker for the diesel !
  by 3rdrail
Gerry6309 wrote:I recall the trolley wire remaining on the Arborway routes up to the wholesale abandonments of the early sixties. The plan may have been to replace the trackless on that division with new or used coaches at some point. When Ed Dana was replaced by Tom McLernon, everything changed, and only the lack of catalytic mufflers at the time saved the four Cambridge lines.
Interesting to wonder, what if ?... Perhaps a Trackless Trolley Limited to Riverside out of Forest Hills via Needham (maybe even with semi-private ROW along with CR), had the Tracklesses remained ? Of course, you can do a similiar thing with busses, but with tracklesses, you can legitimately claim opening up a perceived permanent line.
  by streetduck
I worked for the T for 6 months in 1971-72 (left because of illness) operating TT's on the Cambridge system but I had always had an affinity for them since I was a little kid in Dorchester, riding them to Ashmont and Dudley Stations between 1952 and 1958. Those two stations were especially intimidating to me back then because they were so massive and complicated.

I wished they had saved a couple more of those post war Pullmans but we have 2 up at Seashore, although 1 of them (TT8490-which I operated in its heyday) needs a ton of work. The other one is ex-Dorchester and then Somerville coach #8361, which has been operating recently up there. It , too, needs some work, especially on the body. I was considering going up to Seashore on Patriot's Day weekend , 2009, to try to help paint or strip or both.

Anybody else possibly interested in helping to make this coach look better?