Book review: ‘Lombard-Gerin & Inventing the Trolleybus’ by Ashley Bruce

This thorough history raises hopes that an iconic mode of transport may be poised to make a comeback.

“When I’m in trouble and totally done

And when all my hope I abandon

I get on the blue trolleybus on the run,

The last one, at random...”

These are the opening lines of ‘The Last Trolleybus’ – a 1950s song by poet and bard Bulat Okudzhava that was super popular in the USSR. Its lyrics were known and routinely hummed by every Soviet adult, and I myself often chanted them drunkenly in the company of friends returning from a boozy late-night party.

Total absence of trolleybuses in the streets of London was one of the biggest surprises during my first visit to Britain in 1988. So plentiful and routine were they in Moscow and my native Kharkov that I found it hard to imagine a modern cityscape without the habitual and strangely soothing gentle noises the trolleybuses made when picking up speed.

“Night trolley, roll on sliding down the street,

Along the boulevards keep moving

To pick up all those who are wrecked and in need

Of rescue from ruin...”

To me, trolleybuses have always appeared romantic, poetic, efficient and environmentally friendly. It was one the best things of life in the USSR; one of the very few good things, to be more exact. Only much later did I come to realise how brilliant these rail-less electric traction vehicles were from a purely engineering point of view.

I never stop being surprised by how little British people know about trolleybuses (no wonder, with the last trolleybus route in the UK closing down in Bradford in 1972). Only recently, on a visit to Budapest, with its sizeable fleet of trolleybuses, I had to explain to a British friend what that “funny looking bus with poles on the roof” was. 

1901 Modele B Lombard-Gerin trolleybus

This Autochrome-filtered computer image shows a 1901 Modele B Lombard-Gerin trolleybus arriving from Fontainebleau and turning into Rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville and the Samois-sur-Seine terminus [A Bruce]

The beautifully produced and richly illustrated ‘Lombard-Gerin & Inventing the Trolleybus’ (Trolleybooks, £28, ISBN 9780904235258) by Ashley Bruce is invaluable in educating a general British readership, and not just public transport officials and engineers, about the history of this truly amazing public transport vehicle and one of its inventors.

Louis Lombard-Guerin (1848-1918) was a French engineer from Lyon whose name, in Bruce’s words, became “synonymous with the first fare-paying passenger-carrying trolleybuses in the world”.

The first Schiemann trolleybus in service on the Bielatalbahn route in Königstein, Germany

The first Schiemann trolleybus in service on the Bielatalbahn route in Königstein, Germany in 1901 [Schiemann werkphoto]

Other inventors, such as Dr Ernst Werner Siemens from Berlin, had been experimenting with rail-less electric traction from the early 1880s onwards, and the book thoroughly examines their successes and failures, yet it was Lombard-Guerin who first tested an experimental passenger-carrying ‘electric tramway without rails’ in the Paris suburb of Moulineax at the time of the Paris International Exhibition of 1900. Trolleybuses then began conquering the world and were soon operating in many countries, including Britain (in Leeds and Bradford from 1911) and the USA (Los Angeles in 1910).

“Night trolleybus, will you open your doors!

On wretched cold nights, I can instance,

Your sailors would come as a matter of course

To render assistance...”

Bruce devotes over 150 pages of his book to every imaginable engineering aspect of the trolleybus history and illustrates his narrative with nearly 350 photographs and technical drawings. Not everything in the trolleybus design was perfect. For example, trolley poles tended to come off the wire fairly often. I can testify to that: sitting on board a motionless trolleybus and watching through the window how the driver – normally a middle-aged woman – literally bent over herself trying to return heavy poles to the wires with the help of some crude ropes attached to them, is one of the recurring memories of my Soviet childhood. That and other small engineering disadvantages gradually led to the reduction of the number of trolleybuses in some countries and to their complete disappearance in Britain.

The Modele A Lombard-Gerin trolleybus on the road that encircles Lac Daumesnil during the Paris Exposition of 1900

The Modele A Lombard-Gerin trolleybus on the road that encircles Lac Daumesnil during the Paris Exposition of 1900 [Compagnie de Traction par Trolley Automoteur]

Yet, I strongly believe that as environmentally friendly and near-noiseless public transport vehicles, trolleybuses have a great future. Several years ago, London’s Evening Standard newspaper wrote about the plans to re-engineer some of the city’s buses into trolleybuses to reduce air pollution. Bruce’s informative book, which should be treasured by every public transport enthusiast, makes me hope that eventually those plans will come to fruition, and trolleybuses will return to the UK streets to become as popular as their Moscow counterparts and as iconic as London black cabs and double-deckers.

“Last trolleybus rolls round the greenery belt

And Moscow, like river, dies down...

The hammering blood in my temples I felt

Calms down, calms down...”

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