Leeds trolleybus: Just the ticket?

It's seen by some as a poor relation of the controversially scrapped Supertram scheme, but by embracing the proposed Leeds trolleybus the city may just go a long way to embracing the future.

Grant Woodward reports

Running on overhead cables and gliding smoothly through the city, the trolleybus delivers its passengers to their destination.

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There's no rattle of exhaust or judder and shudder of engine and, when the vehicle moves off again, it does so without leaving tell-tale clouds of grimy diesel fumes trailing in its wake.

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Such a scene is a familiar sight across the globe in major cities such as Rome, San Francisco and Athens – and it may soon be a reality in Leeds too.

Last October plans to put electric-powered trolleybuses on the city's streets were presented to the then Labour government, eventually gaining approval and forming part of its election manifesto.

However, any joy was short-lived as the new coalition government immediately signalled that the decision would come under scrutiny in this Autumn's comprehensive spending review.

Yet while work goes on behind the scenes to convince ministers to retain the 250m scheme, there is a feeling that support for it within the city itself is decidedly lukewarm.

In some quarters the trolleybus proposals are seen as a poor substitute for Supertram, the more extensive 750m plan that was hailed as the only cure for the city's congestion before being vetoed by then transport secretary Alistair Darling in 2005.

But is such scepticism warranted?

Not according to Ashley Bruce, who, as part of the Electric Tbus Group, is campaigning for trolleybuses to be rolled out right across Britain.

The independent, unpaid body is made up of engineers, transport planners and industry experts who all share the conviction that trolleybuses are the best solution for 21st century travel.

As such, they have spent time working with the planning group at West Yorkshire transport body Metro and view the Leeds project as setting an important precedent for the future of trolleybuses in Britain.

"Our view is that trolleybuses tick all the right boxes," said Ashley. "They're the best form of transport because they're completely zero emission, they're high quality and they're reliable.

"The Leeds scheme is an extremely good scheme, it's well-researched and it inherits an awful lot of the Supertram planning so it goes back a very long way. I think it would be tragic if it were lost."

The 14-mile route in Leeds would see 'bendy' trolleybuses powered by

overhead electric lines and capable of carrying up to 160 people.

The three lines more or less follow the same routes the cancelled Supertram would have followed, with a northern line going to Bodington Hall, another to the south to Stourton and a third going to St James's University Hospital in the east, along with a loop around the retail district of the city centre.

The Tbus group has actively encouraged Metro to stick as closely as possible to the Supertram blueprint, with segregated lanes giving the trolleybus priority over other traffic and encouraging motorists to ditch the car.

"By making the trolleybus the king of the road you're saying to car users, whatever you do, this thing is going to get there quicker and more reliably," said Ashley. "You're better off giving up your car and taking this thing because it's being given total priority.

"A big part as far as the public is concerned is how often they run and how dependably they run. There are very much the same sort of advantages as there are with a tram system. People like the idea of electric public transport and in cities that have them people get very passionate about keeping them.

"Go to Arnhem in Holland and talk to the passengers and they'll tell you they love them. In Lyon they tried to scrap one of the routes and the public were so outraged they were forced not to. Go to San Francisco and it's the same.

"Everywhere that we know of where buses have been substituted for trolleybuses you get a 15 to 20 per cent increase in the number of people using public transport.

"I'm not an expert traffic planner but I would say that on these three main corridors you're going to get people using the vehicles and giving up their cars. That's the point and that's the purpose."

One of the major advantages over a tram system is cost. You can have three times as many trolleybuses as you can trams for the same money.

Trolleybuses are also very flexible, they use road not rail and can come off overhead lines and run on battery power, supercapacitors or diesel engines.

And it's argued that far from being an eyesore, the overhead cables required for a trolleybus scheme can actually be a good thing, lending a reassuring sense of permanence to the network.

In fact, far from the throwback to a bygone age some see them as, the Electric Tbus Group argues that trolleybuses are an essential leap into the future of public transport right around the world.

"If you're talking about the next 20 or 30 years you're going to have to use trolleybuses, there isn't going to be much else," says Ashley.

"As the oil stocks deplete, and global warming becomes more important as a factor, then urban transport has to go electric and trolleybuses are the way to do it.

"On top of that they're very quiet, comfortable, they're super clean and there are no emissions at all. You go to places like Lyon and Salzburg and sit on the streets and there is just a better quality of life, it's just a nicer place to be and you're not breathing in acrid fumes. That has huge health and environmental benefits.

"At the end of the day it's all about perception. Modern trolleybuses are entirely different to the things that you see in museums and once ran in cities like Leeds and Bradford.

"This is a transport system that is being adopted around the world. And if you look at the Saudi Arabian trolleybuses, I don't think you can get much more futuristic than that."

Leeds transport planners now just have to hope the government is listening.