Trolleybuses in Vancouver - A Brief History

Part I - The Brill era

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Trolleybuses were first mooted for Vancouver, or, more correctly, the then-separate municipality of Point Grey, as early as 1912, when the British Columbia Electric Railway investigated their possible use what was then a rapidly expanding suburb of the upstart port city on Canada's west coast. The idea was quickly dropped when it was realized that the unpaved roads of the day, coupled with the solid tires on the trolley vehicles, would give a much inferior ride to the streetcars that were eventually installed.

Although the trolleybus took hold in the United States and Britain in the 1930's, in Canada, streetcars continued to dominate the urban transportation scene until after World War II. In Vancouver, the street railway system was still in private ownership. The heavy traffic of the war years, coupled with unavailability of new equipment and deferred maintenance of the old, left the rail-based transit system in shambles. The gasoline-powered motor buses of the day were slow, smelly and inefficient. The BCER, working in concert with the City of Vancouver, chose to modernize its system by acquiring a large fleet of trolleybuses.

Trolleybuses combined the comfortable, pneumatic-tired ride and safety of curbside loading, features of buses, with the superior performance characteristics of the electrically-powered streetcars. They truly are a hybrid vehicle. It also helped that they consumed energy generated cheaply by the same company that operated the transit system.

Even before the war was over, the BCER took a cue from the nearby American city of Seattle, which had converted its large streetcar system to a large trolleybus fleet, commencing in 1940. As a centre of strategic wartime production, Seattle needed a source of efficient, high-capacity public transportation, something that the 307 trolley coaches in Seattle were able to provide.

In 1945, in anticipation of post-war reconstruction of the transit systems in Vancouver and Victoria, the BCER arranged to borrow Seattle Twin Coach trolleybus #935. Built in 1942, this vehicle demonstrated the new form of transportation in both cities. It was an electrically powered version of buses already in use by the B C Electric company, which had acquitted themselves well in the late 1930's and early 1940's. The demonstration line operated in Vancouver on a short route, running along Pender to Georgia, looping around Bidwell, Alberni, Cardero and Pender; the eastern loop was via Thurlow, Seton (now Hastings), Burrard to Pender.

Plans were made to inaugurate trolleybus service in Vancouver with a fleet of 30 trolleys, to operate the Macdonald and Cambie services. The Macdonald route was never electrified, due in part to the alleged engineering problems with installing overhead wire on the Burrard Street Bridge, so it fell to the Cambie route, coupled with a replacement for the Fraser streetcar, to become the first trolleybus route in Vancouver to carry revenue passengers.

Satisfactory as the Twin Coach demonstrator was, that company was never to sell any trolleybuses to Vancouver, nor to any other Canadian city. (It did, however, sell over 200 gasoline powered buses, which played a significant role in the conversion of the streetcar and interurban rail systems, and later provided suburban and light duty services for many years.)

Winding down from wartime aircraft production, the Canadian Car and Foundry company of Fort William (now Thunder Bay) Ontario was making plans to return to the carbuilding business. A large number of highly skilled aluminium fabricators had been employed by the company during the war, and it was a natural plan to combine the need for new transit vehicles in Canada with the aluminium fabricating and carbuilding skills of the Canadian Car company. Commencing in 1945, a series of similar-looking buses, based on designs by the American company ACF-Brill. First off the line was the little C-36 gasoline-powered bus, but soon the T-44 trolleybus had moved from drawing boards to reality. And what a beauty it was, too, with 44 comfortable seats, a powerful General Electric motor, smooth controls, a confident ride. Transit systems snapped the first "CCF-Brills" up as fast as they could be made. Vancouver placed its order for 30, and soon added another dozen to the first order. A third order, for another 40 units, brought a total of 82 T-44's to Vancouver by 1948. As was appropriate for a totally new type of vehicle, the BCER commenced a completely new numbering series for the T-44's, commencing at 2001. This same numbering scheme is still in use on Vancouver's trolley fleet today, despite several changes of ownership down through the years.

Ever anxious to promote the multi-million dollar improvements to the transit system that it was undertaking, the B.C. Electric Railway arranged to have the first two of its new trolleybuses rushed to completion for display at the Pacific National Exhibition in August, 1947. It was still to be a year before the first revenue passengers were carried, yet the new Brills were well received by a war-weary public who were tired of riding dilapidated streetcars on worn-out track.

In the year that followed, massive changes were undertaken on the Vancouver transit system. A modern servicing facility was being built in the middle of the bush at West 41st Avenue and Oak street: Oakridge Transit Centre continues to service the trolleybus fleet, and much of the motorbus fleet as well. New techniques had to be learned. A test and training route for the new vehicles was constructed on Bodwell Road (now East 33rd Avenue) between Fraser and Main Streets. The first trolleybus route, Cambie/Fraser, was built. The route ran from Fraser and Marine via Fraser, Kingsway, Main, Pender, Seymour, Robson and Cambie to 29th Avenue. It is hard to believe now, but in those days Cambie was not a through street, Queen Elizabeth Park did not exist and was in use as a rock quarry, and one-way streets in downtown Vancouver were nearly a decade away.

Fraser Street suffered the indignity of being the first major streetcar abandonment on the Vancouver system, with the single track section south of 49th Avenue being abandoned on April 30, 1947 (along with the single line stretch of the Kerrisdale car line west of East Boulevard) and on May 31st, the stretch along Fraser between Kingsway and 49th Avenue was closed. Motor buses ran on the route for over a year as the tracks were removed and a major street repaving programme, brought about through merchant pressure (some things never change) was undertaken. It wasn't until late the following summer that the trolley coach line was ready for public service. The removal of rails from the street (rather than simply paving them over), and major street rebuilding, set the pattern for streetcar conversions that would take place over the next eight years, until the last car line was gone in 1955.

Cambie Street had never had tracks south of Broadway, and so the new trolley coaches were bringing a vast improvement over the motor buses which had provided service previously.

The BC Electric Railway was very busy in 1947, abandoning the entirely separate North Vancouver streetcar system that year, and busily buying motor buses as well as trolley coaches for its post-war rebuilding programme.

1948 was an equally busy year in the modernization programme, and, towards the end of the summer, the first new trolley coach route was ready to accept passengers After a day of free rides and much celebration the previous days, including a tour of civic dignitaries on Friday the 13th, the public service commenced on Monday, August 16, 1948. The face of Vancouver was changed: a mode of transportation commenced service that even today provides the backbone of urban transit in the central city.

So successful and popular were the new electric coaches that the original modernization plan, which envisaged the heaviest streetcar lines being retained and only lighter lines converted to trolleybus, were revised to bring about the end of all rail operation in ten years. Another factor in the conversion was the 1948 decision by the City of Vancouver to replace the existing Granville Street bridge. The new bridge ultimately became the railless, high-level structure that was completed in 1954; its design precluded rail service to any of the west-side routes.

A new, larger trolleybus, model T-48, was introduced by Canadian Car & Foundry in 1949. Although there was an American counterpart, only 26 sold in the United States; the BCER alone was to order 235 of this model, and acquired several more on the second hand market in the 1970's. . With its trademark double-stream front doors, allowing passengers to exit without blocking loading, or for fast peak hour loading, the T-48 was the perfect vehicle for Vancouver's heaviest routes. The first of the series, initially numbered 2083, arrived in May 1949.

Route conversions continued apace, with the "West End" Davie and Robson lines commencing on October 16, 1948, followed by the Granville route, including the Boulevard branch to Kerrisdale, in July 1949. By 1950, other trolley coach routes included Broadway East (to Commercial), Powell-Stanley Park, Fourth and Tenth Avenues (via Fourth) and the Kingsway and Victoria routes.

The 1949 batch of T-48's, originally 2083 to 2169, was renumbered by placing 2083-2100 in sequence after 2169 (up to 2186); 1950 brought a further 88 units, 2201-2288, and 1951 brought 2301-2355. Conversions in 1951 included Dunbar and 41st Avenue routes, followed in 1952 by the Arbutus (replacing interurban cars running on the Vancouver & Lulu Island line) and the largely single-track Oak route, along with the extension of the Cambie route to 49th Avenue. In 1953, Broadway, west to Alma and east to Renfrew, was extended, and the Main Street carline was converted as well. At this time, the Broadway route commenced operation as a crosstown line; formerly, it had run through downtown to Robson St. February 1954 brought the opening of the eight-lane Granville Street Bridge with its accompanying trolley coach services. Later in the year, the Nanaimo Street route commenced (replacing motor buses) and the Victoria route was extended south of 54th Avenue, replacing a motor bus shuttle.

1954 also saw the last intake of new Canadian Car trolleybuses, by now designated T48A. The sixteen members of the 2400 class caused quite a stir on arrival, featuring single seats on one side of the aisle, to allow for crush loading during peak hours. While perhaps not well received by the general public, the company was obviously impressed with their new coaches, as they converted all 86 of the 2100 class, and the first 30 of the 2200 class, to the 42-seat "rush hour" configuration. (The 2200's were later converted back to 2+2 seating). 2416, now preserved for posterity, was the last of over 1,000 trolleybuses built by Canadian Car. By this time, 327 trolleys were running on the streets of Vancouver.

Vancouver's last streetcars ran on April 24, 1955, when the Hastings East route was closed. Shortly afterwards, the Hastings and Renfrew trolleybuses commenced operation.

The need for trolleybuses continued, but the traditional source of supply had become too expensive (Canadian Car was by this time making diesel buses, incorporating engines from England's Associated Equipment Company - AEC). Public transit was falling on hard times in the United States, the automobile having made heavy inroads on the revenues of many systems. Service cuts and a general atmosphere of disinvestment made surplus trolleybuses available, and the BCER joined several other Canadian systems in picking up second hand bargains from the USA. The BCER's second hand trolley coaches came from Birmingham, Alabama, in the form of two dozen Pullman Standard coaches built in 1947. These vehicles received an extensive rebuild in Vancouver prior to entering service, and were never popular with drivers (for their heaving steering) nor with the public (due to their manually-operated push-type exit doors). First appearing on city streets in 1957, the Pullmans were confined to the straight Broadway and Forty-First routes.

1957 brought what was to be the last major route expansion for nearly three decades, with the inauguration of the Hastings Express trolley bus route. Express operation between Main Street and Kootenay Loop required the installation of a second complete set of overhead wires, to allow the express trolleys to pass the local service. Express service was terminated in 1996 but the overhead wires remain intact and see occasional emergency and non-revenue use.

The Forty-First Avenue route was extended east from Victoria to Joyce Loop in 1959. Drastic drops in ridership levels rendered some of the fleet redundant, and all the Pullmans were retired by 1960. In addition, the first 30 T-44's were retired. The first 10, 2001-2010, were sold to Edmonton Transit System, but as the market for trolleybuses in North America had collapsed, the other 20 were broken up for scrap and parts.

At this point, the transit system settled into to a long period of stagnation. The British Columbia Electric Company and its BCER subsidiary were taken over by the Province of British Columbia in 1961, but it was primarily for the power generation and distribution systems, not the transit system. Transit continued to languish under public ownership, even paying franchise fees to the City of Vancouver for the right to use the public streets. The arrival of fancy new GM Diesel buses in 1963 appeared to signal the end for the trolley coach system, and rumours were rampant as to which route would close first.

Perhaps the city was lucky that the transit system was at the bottom of the priority list for capital spending by the new B. C. Hydro and Power Authority, for the diesel bus purchases that were made were used to retire the life-expired gasoline-powered Twin Coaches, not for trolley replacements. And then, in 1968, it happened: it was announced that the Tenth Avenue line would be converted to diesel, to allow through running to the University of British Columbia. It looked like the thin end of the wedge.

But events, nearby and far away, had an influence on the retention of the trolley system. Nearby, the Seattle Transit System made major cuts to its trolleybus system in 1963. A large batch of diesel buses had been purchased to accommodate the 1962 World's Fair traffic; when the fair ended, these buses were used to replace much of the trolley fleet (which dated from 1940). What Seattle Transit had not counted on, and which was no doubt closely observed from the B.C.Hydro offices, was the citizen's revolt which followed. Protest was loud, well-reasoned and well-organized - so much so that Seattle was forced to re-think its trolley abandonment policy. The remaining old coaches lingered on into the mid-1970's, at which time the system was briefly closed to allow for a total rebuilding of the overhead wire, substations and for the acquisition of new vehicles. Phoenix-like, the Seattle trolleybus system rose again, better (if not bigger) than its predecessor: Seattle is one of the more progressive trolleybus systems in North America.

The other event which no doubt influenced the retention of the trolleybus system was the "energy crisis". At one point, it looked as if the world's energy supply would run out next month, and the trolleys were suddenly seen as an asset rather than a liability.

But perhaps most of all, it was the unsurpassed durability of the old Canadian Car-Brills, undoubtedly helped by Vancouver's moderate climate, that favoured retention of the trolleybus system in the city. Just like the Energizer bunny, the old Brills rolled on, and on, and on. Spare parts were hard to find but closures of other, smaller Canadian systems relinquished second hand equipment which was cannibalized for spare parts; some of the better vehicles, including seventeen from Saskatoon and a pair from Winnipeg, were put into service in the city.

The Cambie route was extended from 49th to 64th Avenues in 1971, in concert with the widening of the street by the City.

The election of a social democratic (NDP) government - the first ever in British Columbia - in 1972 brought a change in the climate for transit in Vancouver and the surrounding municipalities. The transit management in B.C. Hydro were successful in securing capital funding to acquire 60 diesel buses. The plan of the day was to use these to replace several trolley coach routes. By the time the new Flyer D700's had arrived, the Provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs had intervened, and directed that the new buses be used for a massive expansion of services to previously unserved suburban municipalities. This was the first expansion outside the traditional territory that had been served by the BCER rail systems, and marked the beginning of an expansion of suburban services which has continued through to the present day. The expansion was based on work done for the Greater Vancouver Regional District in 1971, by which time the inertia in the transit system was becoming intolerable as the region's population growth continued unabated past the 1 million mark. The trolley coach system's execution was postponed pending re-evaluation.

The transit system underwent a brief "golden age" in the 1972 to 1975 period under the NDP administration. The bus fleet expanded each year, new garages were built, and plans to reinstate the cross-harbour ferry to North Vancouver, abandoned in 1958, with a revolutionary catamaran-hulled "SeaBus" were announced. And in 1974, the first "second generation" trolleybuses were ordered for Vancouver.

Flyer Industries of Winnipeg had been responsible for the rebirth of the trolleybus in North America. The last builders of trolleybuses had either vanished or converted entirely to diesel bus production by 1960, so those cities looking for new trolleybuses were simply out of luck. Toronto, with a fleet of 151 trolleys, mostly Canadian Car-Brills and a few second-hand Marmon-Herringtons from the U.S.A., desperately wanted a new trolleybus fleet. Realizing that the motor and control units would continue to give many years of additional service if placed in new bodies, Toronto and Flyer developed a prototype in 1968, based on the model 700 diesel bus. The prototype was a success, and Toronto ordered electric replacements for its entire trolleybus fleet. The argument that "new trolleys aren't available" no longer held up.

By 1974, the model 700 had been discontinued by Flyer in favour of the model 800, which had been developed for the U.S. market in conjunction with A.M.General, a manufacturer of military vehicles which was anxious to diversify into civilian vehicle manufacture after the Viet Nam war. San Francisco ordered over 300 model 800 trolleys and Vancouver was to have a batch of 50. Unlike San Francisco, which purchased new motors and controls, Vancouver's "new" trolleys utilized motors salvaged from a variety of sources, including scrapped trolleybuses from Vancouver and elsewhere.

The first of the 2600 class appeared towards the end of 1975, and they were unlike anything ever seen before in Vancouver. Interior appointments were like a diesel bus of the day, with bright fluorescent lighting, and big windows. But they were definitely a trolleybus, and the rewound motors gave a quiet ride. At rest, the loudest noise was the fluorescent lighting ballasts. Unfortunately, the rear axle-differential assembly was not well suited to a modern trolleybus, and starting was often jerky, making the 2600's unpopular with riders and drivers.

As the 2600's arrived and entered service, the last of the T-44 2000 class were withdrawn. These 35-foot trolleys with their single entrance door were just too small to be useful on the busy trolley lines in the city. They shared their single entrance door with the new 2600's, another unpopular feature, although at least the 2600's had double-stream exit doors to allow for easier unloading.

To be continued....

(C) 1998 John M. Day. All rights reserved

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Revised March 14, 1998

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