Choysa Tea Trolley Bus
Editor: Christen McAlpine
During the 1960s and 1970s, Auckland had New Zealand’s largest trolley bus system, with 133 vehicles operating over 14 routes. The trolley bus, for the uninitiated, was the next step in the evolution of electric trams, a virtually trackless tram. As a fully sustainable and electrically powered vehicle, the trolley bus receives its electricity from overhead wires, but unlike the tram, has rubber tires. The tram gets the positive side of the electrical circuit via a trolley pole with a collector shoe, running along the underside of the copper overhead wire. The tram’s wheels and rails are the negative side, taking the power back to the power station. The trolley bus with its rubber tires, simply has a second wire installed and a second trolley pole, so one wire and trolley pole positive, the other wire and pole is negative, and so long as the bus stays in reach of the overhead wires, it can wander all over the roadway.
From 1949 to 1956, trolley buses systematically drove Auckland’s aging trams off the streets, from Herne Bay, right across the isthmus to Onehunga and Meadowbank. The vehicles were built in the U.K. with bodywork by some of Britain’s leading bus builders, all ordered through British United Traction (B.U.T.), an organisation established in 1946 when the Associated Equipment Company (AEC) and Leyland amalgamated their trolley bus interests. With both companies forecasting that trolley bus demand would return to pre-war levels as tramway networks began to close, a joint venture was formed. The new company was organised so that AEC would design and produce vehicles for the U.K. market while Leyland looked after export markets.
The final batch of B.U.T. trolley buses ordered for Auckland were numbered 100 to 133, with trolley bus No.133 being the last one to enter service in Auckland in June 1959. These 34 Park Royal bodied trolley buses were divided into two distinct interior layouts. Numbers 100 thru to 112 were intended for the Queen Street to Karangahape Road shuttle service. These Park Royals had single seating along the central off-side of the vehicle and were used exclusively on the intensive Queen Street shuttle service, which included an extension to Auckland Railway Station in Beach Road. The other Park Royal trolley buses had a more conventional seating layout for suburban operation. Preserved in the MOTAT (Museum of Transport and Technology) trolley bus collection is No. 115 – a rather unique vehicle, that was originally part of the suburban fleet of Park Royals, but later became a Queen Street shuttle bus.
Auckland’s trolley buses were also to become money-spinners for their operator, the Auckland Regional Authority (ARA), as during the mid-1960s through to the 1970s, some of the fleet were to carry all-over advertising for several key city businesses. In 1968, trolley bus No.115 was chosen to promote a famous brand of tea – Choysa! Painted in a sky-blue background, the gold and red “CHOYSA” brand name really stood out, together with phrases such as “Go Happily Home to Choysa” and “Revive with Choysa”.
When the Choysa Tea contract expired, trolley bus No.115 was returned to the standard colours of lettuce green and cream, as worn by the other members of the bus fleet. It was around this time that the ARA declared its intention to abandon the trolley bus system altogether and called for tenders for a new fleet of diesel buses – Mercedes Benz won the tender. From 1973 onwards, one-by-one the trolley buses were replaced on each route by diesel buses, just as they had in-turn, replaced the trams!
The trolley buses were thrown a temporary life-line in the mid-1970s, when the ARA acquired some of the city’s private motor-bus companies. Some of these operators had older vehicles in their fleets, many in poor condition, necessitating the use of the new Mercedes Benz diesels to cover these services, as opposed to replacing their original trolley buses. With the arrival of the Mercedes Benz buses, a new bright livery was introduced, described as “custard & mustard”. Over the ensuing years, many of the trolley buses were eventually repainted into this new livery. Trolley bus No.130 being the first to be so treated and was dubbed “The Electric Lemon”.
No.115’s next claim to fame was in 1975, when Queen Street shuttle trolley bus No.103 was written off following a serious accident. No.115 now joined the shuttle fleet, being painted in the distinctive livery of a Queen Street to Karangahape Road trolley bus, with red waistband, and down-seated using seating from the scrapped No.103.
From around 1975, wholesale scrapping of trolley buses began to take place. At first, it was the B.U.T. MCCW bodied buses being sent to Pacific Scrap in Otahuhu. But by 1976, this began to include the other body types as well. As routes closed, overhead linesmen were kept busy removing the trolley bus wires from city streets.
A major issue plaguing the trolley bus operation in these later years, was the decaying state of the underground feeder cable network from the substations, much of which dated back to the old tramway system. Standards were now starting to slip with both buses and overhead infrastructure, previously kept in immaculate condition, showing signs of deterioration. Increasing dewirements of trolley poles and the almost shabby-look of the buses all bearing testament to a system in decline.
Yet again, another lifeline was thrown to trolley bus operation, this being the world-wide fuel crisis of the late 1970s. This crisis had New Zealand’s three trolley bus operators (Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin) all re-thinking their view on the future of these electrically powered vehicles, helped along by a rumoured support package from central Government.
The Auckland media became somewhat vocal on the “vandalism” of the trolley bus system due to overhead wires being torn down on closed routes with much haste. The ARA were criticised for not considering a new future for electrically powered buses considering not only the rising fuel prices, but also the environmental issues that were becoming a factor in the public mind. Wellington had already made the bold step of ordering a new fleet of 68 Volvo trolley buses with locally built bodies and new overhead infrastructure of European design, which would enable trolley buses to maintain the same speed as the flow of traffic.
In a very controversial move in 1980, the ARA announced its intention to purchase a new fleet of 80 trolley buses from the Italian firm Ansaldo, with locally built bodies, together with a whole new European designed overhead wire network and power supply system. This became a hot political debate within the ARA, the media and the anti-trolley bus lobby, and resulted in the order being pruned back to 50, then 20 trolley buses. The trolley buses were to operate a brand-new inner-city link service from Ponsonby, through the city and out to Parnell and Newmarket. With the order now reduced to just 20 new Ansaldos, it was decided to augment these with a number of the B.U.T. Park Royal bodied trolley buses, that would be retained, and given a body overhaul and tidy up.
To enable the new network to be installed, which featured new traction poles to support the equally new overhead wires, the ARA announced that it needed to close the old trolley bus system and remove the infrastructure, to provide a clean slate for the coming new operation.
On Friday 26th September 1980, after 42 years of operation, the Auckland trolley bus system, as it then stood, had its last revenue day. With the last timetabled trolley buses on each route running into City Depot in Gaunt Street, the remaining three services ceased. These were the Farmers’ free Wyndham Street service, opened in 1938, together with the first suburban route opened to Herne Bay in 1949, and the Queen Street shuttle service. The last trolley bus to collect a revenue fare was Queen Street shuttle No.108, running into City Depot around midnight – No.108 is also now in the MOTAT collection.
Two private tours of the remaining inner-city network were made on the Saturday. Then on Sunday 28th September 1980, the ARA ran a free service from the Railway Station to Karangahape Road via Queen Street using shuttle trolley buses numbers 105 and 115, with No.104 kept ready as a backup for the day.
During the afternoon, television media filmed some footage of the two trolley buses running up and down Queen Street and spoke to some of the riding passengers. Outside of the dedicated trolley bus enthusiasts who were out in force, the rank and file Aucklander appeared happy to see the old British-built system of the 1950s make way for a new and modern European styled trolley bus system. No.115 was the official “Last Trolley bus” to run into City Depot around 5pm, bringing the first generation of trolley bus service in Auckland to a close.
The absolute final blow came following the late 1980 local-body elections. The new Transport Committee of the Auckland Regional Authority declared its very strong “anti-trolley bus” position. They quickly moved to cancel the order of the 20 new Ansaldo trolley buses. However, construction of the chassis were already well underway and Ansaldo confident of their legal status, knowing that the demand for right-hand drive trolley buses was almost zero, refused to accept the cancellation of the order. The ARA was obligated to proceed with the contract, even if they were never to operate the buses.
The new Rebosio overhead was already in the country and a short length of overhead had already been erected in Halsey Street adjacent to City Depot. The whole saga became a very embarrassing fiasco, aired in all its glory through the major print media.
With Ansaldo winning the battle, the Auckland Regional Authority acquired for itself a utility it had no intention of using. Eventually the ARA was able to dispose of the trolley buses to a delighted Wellington City Council who paid a bargain-basement price. Together with their flash new Volvos, the ex-Auckland Ansaldos gave Wellington a smart modern trolley bus fleet, enabling gradual replacement of their aging B.U.T. trolley buses.
It is unfortunate that the Auckland Regional Authority decided to move away from electric traction and opt for the more flexible motor bus. In the last ten years there has been a world-wide move away from having overly flexible public transport that does not need to commit to a certain route. Transport authorities and planners now understand that for public transport to really work, fixed infrastructure is the way to go, giving the travelling public consistency of service with a more robust “turn-up-and-ride” approach. This has seen a return to modern electric trams or “Light Rail Vehicles” in some large cities and modern electric trolley buses in others. The trolley buses now operating under “high-speed” overhead infrastructure, which enables the vehicles to maintain normal road speed even when negotiating point work. With the development of capacitor technology, it also enables today’s trams and trolley buses to run “off-wire” for some distance, which eliminates one of the big criticisms of electric vehicles of old.
It is equally unfortunate that despite a renewed fleet of modern vehicles and infrastructure, Wellington disposed of its electric trolley buses in 2017, leaving the city’s public transport users at the whim of route tendering by bus operators, with disastrous results.
New Zealand stands woefully behind the rest of the world, despite its claims of a “clean and green” image and maintains its on-going love affair with the internal combustion engine. Yes, there are some battery-operated buses, but this technology has still not proven 100% reliable, unlike the tried and true tram and trolley buses with their robust traction motors receiving the life-giving power from overhead wires. These very overhead wires telling the public that this is a committed transport route and they can be assured of a regular service.
• Bush, Graham. 2014. From Survival to Revival – Auckland’s Public Transport since 1860. New Zealand: Grantham House.
• Miller, Sean. 2014. Following the Wires – Trolleybuses of New Zealand. Auckland: Sean Millar Publishing.
• Stewart, Graham. 1973. The End of the Penny Section. New Zealand: Grantham House.
• Walker, Cyril. 1981. An Auto biography by on his career with the Auckland Transport Board and later the A.R.A.; Memories of a Tram Racing Man: Cyril Walker. In Auckland Regional Authority Review, February 1981.