A trolley bus and a tram differ in the way they are steered or guided. Trams are guided on tracks and the trolley bus is steered like a normal diesel bus. The tram is confined to its rails whereas the trolley bus has a limited range from its power lines. You can think of the trolley bus as a tram without rails or a bus with electric power.


The battery had been invented in 1800 by Allesandro Volta, then came the generating of a magnetic field from electric current in 1820 by Hans Christian Oersted, and then the electromagnet in 1825 by William Sturgeon. Many inventors then worked simultaneously on the development of the electric motor until two Dutchmen Sibrandus Stratingh and Christopher Becker built the first known practical application of an electric motor in 1835. But it was the German company Siemens that developed a sufficiently powerful electric generator in 1867 which saw the advent of electricity.

Since Stratingh and Becker’s demonstration had proved that the electric motor offered propulsion, as soon as they became powerful enough it did not take long to think of it driving a vehicle. The obstacle was that a rather long cable would be required to supply the motor power and so experiments began using methods to connect the vehicle to the power by means of live wires along the journey route and rolling or sliding contacts linking the wires to the vehicle.

In Germany Ernst Werner Von Siemens ran experiments between Charlottenburg and Spandau Bock for six weeks beginning May 1882, with what he called his ‘contaktwagen’. Also in 1882 Chicago, A Belgian Charles Van Depoele patented a trolley wheel taking power from an overhead wire. While in 1889 another American Harvey D.Dibble also patented a trolley bus.

These working models primarily in Germany and America were not reliable, they just proved that the concept was sound. In 1889 a patent was granted for the invention of a three-legged three-phase transformer which was the beginning of the world wide introduction of the three-phase alternating current system for the provision of electricity. AEG built the first three-phase electric power transmission line in 1891 from Lauffen to Frankfurt and five years later the first American electric power line was built by Tesla and Westinghouse from Niagara Falls to New York.

It was this new higher voltage power supply that made regular tramline services possible. Where the UK picks up the trail is that overhead operation was first seen at a demonstration in Edinburgh in 1890. An American company International Thompson Houston Co., installed the Leeds Roundhay tramway in 1891. The overhead and trolley-wheel system was then used in Bradford and then in Guernsey in 1892. After that overhead tram systems spread throughout the world.


In the 19th Century, ‘progress’ was defined with the advent of the horse drawn omnibus and the railways in the 1830s, horse drawn trams in the 1870s, automobiles in the 1880s and electric trams from the 1890s. In the UK the 1860 Cheap Trains Act introduced cheap fares at times outside of business hours. One can see that from the 1860s the railways were beginning efforts to hold on to patrons.

The panic started when the first horse drawn trams started in London, operating along Victoria Street from 1860. This enterprise was owned by an American with a rather appropriate name, George Francis Train. It is from him that we visualise tram tracks embedded into the road. He was arrested for causing damage to the road surface and it took a change in the law to permit tram lines on the condition they be sunken into the roadway. The demonstration lines went through affluent areas and the well to do complained about the noise of the trams. Then it was noted the rails were protruding from the road surface causing great inconvenience to road users and after just a few months the lines were removed.

When the turnpikes were removed the cost of maintaining roads fell back to the tax payer. However the tramway law made it the responsibility of the tram companies to maintain the road the tracks were on and any parallel carriageway. So the fare to ride on a tram was a charge per mile. Trams had no problem competing with existing omnibuses as the tram was far more comfortable running on its rails.

By 1871 horse-drawn trams had reached the foot of Highgate Hill. The steepness of the hill meant that horses were unable to take the omnibus further. As we discussed earlier, the coming of electricity was being experimented with in regards to a power source for trams, but in the meantime horse drawn vehicles were the only option and limited by the power of horses, which for 60 seater vehicles was usually two.

Other power sources were being looked at too, for example on the Caledonian Road between 1881 and 1883 some trams were powered by compressed air. And the solution for Highgate Hill in 1884, was a cable tramway operated by the Highgate Steep Grade Tramways and Works Co. A similar system was operating in San Francisco designed by William Eppelsheimer, the man who was also employed to design the grip system for Highgate Hill and which became the first of its kind in Europe. The fact that it worked meant other steep gradients such as Brixton Hill could implement a cable tramway system.

Highgate cable tram – View from Highgate Village looking down Highgate Hill.

The service on Highgate Hill comprised of five double decker trams running between the Archway Tavern and Highgate Village, each capable of carrying 26 passengers inside and 28 on top. The cable was 3780ft that’s about three quarters of a mile and was set into the road between the 3ft 3in gauge rails. 2700 ft was double track with the remaining single track having two passing places. It was kept continuously moving at six and a half miles an hour by two steam engines housed on the east side at the top of the hill. Trams attached themselves to the cable with a clamp-like grip to pick up a tow.

Representatives from other cities came to appraise the system working and Birmingham adopted the system for one of their steep hills. However it was not faultless nor inexpensive to run and by 1892 a series of accidents saw the cable tramway removed from service for repairs. The repairs went on for months and a new company had to be formed in 1893 to continue, but the local authorities would not grant a licence until the tramway was in a proper state and so the line was reconstructed and new engines installed then at long last services started again in April 1897 and continued until 1909 when the cable system was replaced by electric trams.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the London County Council (LCC) was acquiring companies running horse drawn trams because it was planning to unify and electrify the transport system. In 1899 and again in 1901 it sent delegates to America to study their tramways. Operators were looking for alternatives to the horse that would be cheaper and more efficient.

The two major costs associated with operating trams were the maintenance of the roads and even costlier, the maintenance of the horses. In 1900 London was the world’s largest city with a population of 6.5 million. The streets were crowded with horse drawn omnibuses, hackney cabs, carriages and trams. Single decker vehicles required one horse with double deckers drawn by two horses. All these horses deposited 1000 tonnes of dung on the streets every day.

The horses represented 55% of operating costs. Each horse worked for three to four hours and completed about fifteen miles. They worked in teams of twelve horses to keep a single vehicle on the road for twelve hours a day. The electrification of the trams and the later arrival of the motor bus before the First World War was the reason for the demise of the working horses in London with the last horse drawn trams being withdrawn in 1915.

The conversion work in London started in 1901 with the first electric line opening in May 1903 between Westminster Bridge and Tooting. In the Greater London Area, the Croydon Corporation began the first electric tram services in 1901 using power from overhead wires. In 1903 there were 300 electric trams in London and by 1914 London tram operators formed the largest tram network in Europe.

Electric trams took several decades to catch on, mainly as we have seen, due to waiting for electrical power technology to catch up. But once they did take off they were limited by the expensive costs and this is why trams were only viable on main high-footfall routes. In the heyday the longest tram route within London was a weekend service between Archway and Downham via Brockley, 16 miles (26 kilometres).

Tram coming up through Archway Close – 1950.


We are familiar in Archway with the number 17 bus. It started out as tram route 17 on New Year’s Day 1913 running between Archway and Farringdon Street and reports describe it as a busy service running along Caledonian Road. As a trolley bus route it had the number 617 and ran between North Finchley and King’s Cross via East Finchley, Highgate, Archway, Holloway and Caledonian Road and on Saturday morning the route was extended to Farringdon Street via Grays Inn Road and Holborn Circus. In 1961 route 17 started using a diesel bus. Today’s route was introduced in 1985 and runs from Archway to London Bridge.

Trolley buses were viable compared to trams because of the expense of laying tram tracks. So in places where the demand was so low that the cost of laying tracks could not be justified, the trolley bus was the alternative system. Trolley buses started replacing trams in London from 1931. Passengers found them more comfortable and safer to use because they pulled up to the kerb.

The Bielatal system was the world’s first passenger carrying trolley bus network and commenced near Dresden on 10 July 1901. It was designed by Max Schiemann who developed – and I’m quoting this: “the standard current collection system with spring-loaded, rigid trolley poles, and an under wire running contact.

On 20 June 1911 Leeds and Bradford simultaneously opened Britain’s first trolleybus services. The trolley buses were capable of running within 15ft from the centre of the trolley wires. The Bradford trolley buses were the last network to operate in the UK when they stopped in March 1972.

The original six-wheeler trolley bus was made by Guy Motors in 1926. The electrical equipment was supplied by the British Thomson-Houston Company with each bus having twin forty horsepower self-ventilated interpole traction motors. Some models had an auxiliary internal combustion engine, allowing the vehicle to leave the power line.

Britain’s first 6-wheeled double decker trolley bus, outside Wolverhampton Town Hall. Guy Motors Ltd.
Image used with kind permission from the historywebsite museum)

In 1933 the London Passenger Transport Board (i.e. London Transport) inherited 327 tramway miles and just 18 trolley bus miles but by 1948 the numbers were 102 miles and 255 miles respectively. From the start they had parliamentary approval to abandon the whole tramway system rather than any part of it, and they were permitted to introduce any system as long as it was not more expensive to implement and operate than a trolley bus system.

London Transport continued to swap out the trams for trolley buses. Thousands of cast iron poles needed to be erected to support overhead wires and in narrower streets attached to buildings with large cast iron blocks. Finchley’s trams were all replaced by trolley buses in 1938. However, in January 1939 the General Manager reported that due to improvements in the internal combustion engine, motor buses were now cheaper to run than trolley buses.

But nothing progressed during the war years because of priorities for the war effort. Already by this time all the trams north of the river had been replaced leaving just over 1,000 trams in the south. After the war the trams continued to be replaced by trolley buses despite the inevitability that they would soon have to be replaced with motor buses.

In 1950 Operation Tramway was announced by Lord Latham of the London Transport Executive, it would begin to replace trolley buses with motor buses. This began in October of that year. It affected other cities too, for example in 1950 Wolverhampton’s trolley buses made up two thirds of their fleet but by 1960 it was made up of 153 trolley buses and 149 motor buses. The last trams finally left service in July 1952 and oddly enough all the trolley buses in London had been replaced by 8 May 1962 – just ten years later.

Today the Archway remains a hub for buses continuing its transport role as a through route or bus terminus for several routes. In a few instances, it is possible to trace the lineage of existing routes back to their identically numbered predecessors from horse drawn days. There is a tradition for route planners to respect the past by re-using numbers that have local historic associations.

In this vein we have already discussed route 17 and its equivalent trolley route number, the 617. A similar story is true for the C11. Originally Tram 11 terminated at Highgate Village. It was the last tram in North London to be replaced by a trolley bus, the 611 took over from 10 December 1939. On 19th July 1960 the time had come for the 611 to be replaced with a motor bus, but it took on the number 271, and not route 11 as that already existed from 1906 running between Fulham Broadway and Liverpool Street.

In 1968 London Transport first started using the system of prefix numbers. The C in C11 stands for Camden. It began on 28 October 1972 running between Cricklewood Broadway and Archway via Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields and it has no connection to the trolley bus 611.

For people that live for some time in an area they become familiar with certain numbers, in Archway that may be routes 4, C11, 17, 271, whereas 263 and 43 are familiar through routes. But it’s a strange thought that those living elsewhere will share no ounce of affinity with the significance of these numbers, yet they will have random numbers of their own like 12, 152, 246 and 3 – numbers that mean absolutely nothing to me!