Trolleybus travels

Tuesday 13th September 2022

Many thanks to Cartographer-in-Chief Ray Stenning for this superb map.

Last Friday saw the “LCBS 50th Anniversary Tour Group (and assorted other adventures)” reunite for some nostalgic bus riding around south west London with the whacky idea (thanks Andrew) of retracing London Transport’s small trolleybus network centred on Kingston which was withdrawn 60 years ago in May 1962.

That network began life in 1931 when London United Tramways started replacing its tram routes in the area which the newly established London Transport Board inherited after it was formed just two years later in 1933 and which subsequently finished the job off with further conversions.

Andrew Braddock who was among our group shared his vast knowledge of London’s transport history explaining how Lord Ashfield had wanted to replace all the capital’s trams with motorbuses but Frank Pick insisted the power distribution infrastructure had to see out its economic life, hence trolleybuses took over and but for the War would have replaced the remaining trams in South London too. In the end, LT decided to replace those trams with diesel buses as it also would have done for Kingston’s trolleybuses, but as it had the newest vehicles dating from 1948-52 the town’s network remained an isolated outpost.

Andrew Braddock, Roger Bowker, David Cole, Ray Stenning, Stuart Jones, Mike Best enjoying a trip to Tolworth before we got turfed off.

Aside from these routes in Kingston and the 630 linking north and south London only two other small trolleybus networks centred on Croydon and Bexleyheath existed south of the Thames.

Fulwell was the main depot feeding the network but our ride around also included a visit to see the former tram and later trolleybus depot in London Road, Isleworth, which is now a storage warehouse.

We began our route recreation in Wimbledon where trolleybus routes 604 and 605 terminated. These had a best frequency of every four and six minutes respectively from Wimbledon station heading west via Raynes Park and New Malden to Kingston from where the 604 continued further west to Hampton Court and the 605 ran north to Teddington.

The route between Wimbledon and Kingston is now covered by Go-Ahead’s London Central operated route 131 which has a long history originally running between Walton-on-Thames and Kingston but was extended to Wimbledon to replace trolleybus route 604 on its withdrawal in May 1962. Nowadays the 131 begins its journey east of Wimbledon at Tooting Broadway and only runs as far as west as Kingston.

It’s a busy route on a prime corridor with buses running every 7-8 minutes which is about half the frequency compared to trolleybus days. We didn’t have long to wait for a bus and it stopped at almost every bus stop along the route with passengers getting on and off arriving into Kingston’s Fairfield Bus station just over half an hour after leaving Wimbledon.

From Kingston before continuing to retrace route 605 towards Teddington and 601 to Twickenham, we travelled over two shorter length former trolleybus routes numbered 602 and 603 centred on Kingston. The former started south west of Kingston at The Dittons running up to every eight minutes while the latter terminated in Tolworth, south east of Kingston and ran every 10 minutes. The two routes joined forces at Surbiton station forming a common frequency of 14 buses an hour to Kingston before diverging on a clockwise (603) and anti-clockwise (602) loop about a third of a mile north of the town via Kings Road and back again.

This loop entailed passing under the railway bridge adjacent to the railway station on Richmond Road where the road was lowered to allow trolleybuses to pass under. There’s no evidence of ‘troughing’ for the trolleybus wires left on the underside of the bridge – we had a good look to see.

TfL route 65 towards Richmond and Ealing Broadway operates on the east side of the loop (Richmond Road) while route 371 (Richmond to Kingston) runs on the west side (Park Road) with no buses now operating along Kings Road itself, although the less frequent K5 crosses it on a north-south trajectory which is just as well as the road is two-thirds of a mile long – a considerable distance without a bus by TfL standards.

Rather than catch a 65 for a one bus stop length journey we walked up Richmond Road and then along Kings Road again looking out for any evidence of trolleybus infrastructure that may still be in place.

A BYD Enviro400EV electric bus operated by RATP passes the western end of Kings Road at its junction with Richmond Road

Regretfully none was evident, although we thought this lamppost was a likely looking home of a former trolleybus bus stop plate in Kings Road by a parade of shops.

The short ride on route 371 (a route only introduced in 1990 originally using KIngs Road and Richmond Road but rerouted in 1992 to use the southern end of Park Road instead) …

….. took us to Eden Street in the retail centre of Kingston where we made a seamless transfer to route 281 to take us on what would have been under the wires once followed by trolleybuses on route 603 having done the loop to its Tolworth terminus.

Eden Street, Kingston with Tolworth on the blind…..

It was another busy bus even though we’d seen a 281 only leave the Eden Street stop bound for Tolworth a few minutes before the bus we caught arrived. Ominously as we approached the bus stop before Surbiton station the audio message played out that “the destination of this bus has changed” and sure enough at that next stop the message changed to “this bus terminates here” and we were all unceremoniously turfed off and the doors shut behind us ….

…. Claremont Road, Surbiton with Surbiton on the blind

….. with the bus continuing and then stopping further down Claremont Road with hazard lights flashing, leaving us passengers to wait for the next bus to arrive – drivers don’t even bother to let you wait on board these days, you’re just kicked off with no apology or information about what’s happening. Quite appalling customer care.

Hazards on and waiting in Claremont Road

Luckily it wasn’t long before the next bus arrived …

…. route 281 runs to a 10 minute frequency, and we continued on our way past Tolworth’s Red Lion terminus used by route 603 (now used by route 265) and a little bit further on to the Tolworth Broadway terminus where the 601 turned round and now the terminus of route 281. Except it’s not quite the same terminus – that was in Warren Drive South and now it’s a bit further south in Ewell Road; despite its name, a rather nondescript side road. Interestingly, Warren Drive featured the UK’s only concrete traction standards to support the trolleybus wires.

We didn’t see any evidence of these, having stayed on the bus – thanks to the driver unusually letting us – and after a short ‘stand time’ retraced the route of the 601 back through Kingston and then on to Teddington (where we spotted the terminus of the 605) and on to Twickenham.

Trolleybus route 601 linked Tolworth and Twickenham up to every five minutes taking 43 minutes from end to end.

Route 281 took over from trolleybus route 601 in May 1962 and is one of the few trolleybus replacement routes staying virtually the same ever since, save for its extension from Twickenham to Hounslow in 1965 which has continued to this day.

Interestingly between Kingston and Teddington the 281 shares the route with today’s route 285 (Kingston to Heathrow Airport) which was also introduced at the same time in May 1962 to replace the already mentioned trolleybus route 605 which led Andrew to suggest this common section of route used by both the 281 and 285 (and formerly the 601 and 605) – Kingston Road and Teddington High Street and Broad Street – is almost certainly the only stretch of roads in London which has had that level of stability from trolleybus days in the early 1930s right up until the present day, save for the trolley to motor bus switch in 1962. Quite an achievement.

After that revelation it was time for a lunch break as we reached Fulwell bus garage now used by RATP and Abellio sharing the former trolleybus depot site and now with two separate entrances for the two bus companies.

Suitably refreshed and nourished we endured a long wait for a bus on route 267 (which starts at Fulwell garage) to take us to Hammersmith and recreate the former trolleybus route 667 – which ran up to every five minutes from Hampton Court via Hampton, Fulwell and Twickenham then through Brentford and Chiswick – until one finally arrived and we were at last on our way again. By now it was mid afternoon and with at least one, if not two buses missing in front of us (with at least a 20 minute gap) and it being school turning out time, the journey became extremely challenging, to say the least.

North of Twickenham traffic was at a crawl along Twickenham Road towards West Middlesex Hospital and with school children from four different schools along that short stretch of route our progress was at a snail’s pace and we ended up leaving vast hoards of school children waiting forlornly at bus stops with no chance of getting on board ….

….. we already had a rammed load standing in the lower deck and children even sitting on the stairs.

We decided to abandon our original plan and alighted at Syon Park rather than continue on to Hammersmith and transfer up to Shepherds Bush to catch a 237 – the replacement for trolleybus route 657 which duplicated much of the 667 through Chiswick, Brentford and Syon Park before continuing west to Hounslow and Hounslow Heath.

Again it was a long wait for a 237 – and another packed out bus when it arrived. While we were waiting three buses on route E8 passed by, except one disgorged all its passengers at the stop in a reenactment of the Surbiton station ritual of “this bus terminates here”, and they all piled on the next E8 that arrived.

One reason for erratic timekeeping became evident as we approached Isleworth station heading towards Hounslow as the 657 used to do, and that was long queues at 3-way temporary traffic lights for roadworks, including the suspension of the westbound bus stop alongside the station with no temporary replacement …

…. another feature of modern bus riding in TfL land which would never have been countenanced in trolleybus days.

It wasn’t long before we reached the already mentioned former Isleworth trolleybus depot and we decided travel conditions were not conducive to a relaxing trolleybus route recreation any longer and ended our day’s outing admiring this former depot with its brickwork and roof from the days when London Transport rebuilt the depot to make it suitable for trolleybuses after its tram operating era. It was never converted for motorbuses.

And that was it. A fascinating recreation of a former trolleybus network and thanks to Andrew for all his wonderful knowledge which he shared throughout the day.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

24 thoughts on “Trolleybus travels

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  1. Really fascinating! Who are the managers at TfL who permit bus stops to be closed with no temporary stop? Probably car users! And I bet there was no/little/unintelligible/unhelpful information as to where to walk to to get a bus.

    Kingston’s problems, as always now, are from too many cars – but probably no appetite on the council for restrictions, nor for more buses…

    When will someone in authority tell the schools that they are causing major travel problems all over the country. For my money, the best mitigation would be staggered hours, spreading arrival and leaving times each over at least an hour and a half – plus much more frequent regular buses (get rid of ‘school-buses): this would (1) get children into a habit of using ‘normal’ buses; (2) discourage parents from driving children to school (have to make 3 trips for 3 children of different ages); (3) be much better for children staying on for after-school activities; (4) give children a much better experience of bus travel. It shouldn’t matter if they have to make a change en-route – many of us do regularly, and it would be a good learning experience – but those bus managers (them again) must make changing bus comfortable, easy, and worry-free.

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  2. The most unusual London Trolleybuses were some of those based at Ilford, 43 Trolleybuses intended for South Africa were diverted to London Transport as due to the war they could not be shipped there. The law had to be changed for them to be used as they were 8′ wide
    THey were given the Class numbers SA1, SA2, SA3

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  3. In Trolleybus days Waltham Cross was sever by no less then 4 routes

    627 Waltham Cross to Tottenham Court Road
    649 Waltham Cross to Liverpool St
    659 Waltham Cross to Holborn
    679 Waltham Cross to Smithfield

    One has to wonder how many de wired going around the Eleonor Cross

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    1. 627 became the 127 which was withdrawn in 1970 largely as a result of the Victoria line opening

      649 Became the 149 which still runs in a much truncated form

      659 became the 259 which still runs in a much truncated form

      679 became the 279 which now currently terminates at Manor House

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  4. With respect to the comment “appalling customer care” after being “kicked off” the 281, and “not being allowed to stay on the vehicle until the next arrives”, there is little point in short turning a vehicle to get it back on time if it has to be delayed further by allowing passengers to remain on. However, in this age of technology, the Drivers should at least be able to inform as to when the next is likely to arrive, a weak point with TfL.

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      1. Thanks for comment, but I was really thinking that if this became standard practice (passengers being allowed to remain on until next bus arrives), and knowing how quickly people assume their “rights” these days, it could cause chaos when Controllers are desperately trying to restore some order to the service.

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  5. Roger, I used to live in Wimbledon upto the age of 7 and with my mother used to get the 602 from Wimbledon Town Hall where they turned. Kingston was always our destination with a visit to Bentalls. on moving to Raynes Park we would also use the train and was where my life long trainspotting started. At this young age my mother taught me that our Southern electric train had to have a’V’ on the front to go to Kingston, strange what sticks in your memory.

    Have seen you with Geoff Marshall in a recent You Tube video, do you do any in your own right and if so what do I look up to locate you?

    Thanks again for another interesting account now that I reside in North Yorkshire, London will always be ‘home’.

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  6. Rick T . . . in re bus stop closures: to be fair to TfL, with bus stops (on the average) every 400 yards, the disappearance of one stop isn’t desperately important.
    In re school start-finish times: about 10 years ago Herts CC withdrew all support for school buses (apart for those for “entitled” children). My company (which ran 20+ school buses) saw its income slashed, and tried to replace the contracts commercially. We had two schools whose main catchment area was the same, but were in opposite directions. It would’ve been possible to use one bus to run two routes if one school moved to an 0800-1500 day, and the other moved to an 0900-1600 day.
    Neither school would budge, and a year later both lost their school buses . . . we simply couldn’t make the sums add up.
    Schools now have the “freedom” to set their own times, despite the disruption caused . . . the Education authorities are unable to intervene any more for the common good.

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    1. Great point about staggering school times for transport efficiency. In an urban setting absolutely the right thing to do. But I often think that it might need to be done the opposite way round in a deep rural / very small town setting so that all needs can be met on one single journey from the villages.

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    2. The cost of school bus and taxi services is out of all control. There has to be a more efficient way to run these services

      Herts still provides school bus services where they are required to provide them

      One thing being looked at which would require a change to the legislation is to require the parents to pay the fare for the first 2 miles (primary schools) and first 3 miles (secondary schools)

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  7. I grew up within walking distance of the Dittons terminus (so called because it is midway between Thames Ditton and Long Ditton) and just about remember being taken to Richmond Park as a small boy.

    If you knew the turning circle there (which remained for routemasters but was removed in the 1970s to improve the junction for cars) you can see how it fitted it.

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  8. Great trip!

    Unless I missed it, you do not seem to have reached The Dittons. I live quite close to there, hence the interest.

    Not so surprised. It is not served by TfL today: only relatively infrequent Stagecoach / Surrey services go there now, although the K3 gets close.

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  9. The 285 and 131 were my school buses of choice back in the day – no special school buses then, you just caught the next bus to come along.

    There were several routes in the 28x range in the Kingston area. presumably they were all ex-trolleybus routes. Ian’s Bus Routes lists 281 as Houslow to Tolworth, 282 as Kingston to Dittons, 283 as Kingston and Tolworth, 285 as Wimbledon / Raynes Park / New Malden to Heathrow and 286 Kingston and Belmont. No sign of a 284.

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  10. In South East London the 96 must a be contender for the longest unchanged service. The former Bexley UDC tram route from Woolwich to Dartford took the number 96 in October 1934. Converted to Trolleybus 696 in November 1935 and Bus 96 in March 1959 the basic route is unchanged. In 1917 Bexley took over running to Dartford and created the present link from Woolwich to Dartford. Indeed the section from Plumstead to Bexleyheath has been served by the same service continuously since 1903.

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  11. I recall my mother and I used to come up to London from the West Country by train (behind steam of course) in the 50s to visit my uncle and aunt in Mitcham (where they lived in a prefab). My uncle had been a tram driver in Croydon during WW2. We used to catch the 109 under a rather dark, dank bridge under the railway at Waterloo and buildings along the way still showed evidence of bomb damage. I was pleased to find a model 109 RT at an open day at Barking garage a few years ago, which I will give to my grandson when he’s a bit older. One of my abiding memories from that time is watching the trolley buses passing by on the other side of Mitcham Common (which I now know to be the 630), but my uncle owned a Morris Minor so I never got to ride on a trolley bus. They say the past is another country! My sons’ eyes usually glaze over when I reminisce, but as they now live in Raynes Park and Twickenham on these old trolley bus routes I’ll forward this blog to them anyway.

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  12. Roger,

    Thank you for your interesting article.

    However, you missed mentioning some extant evidence of the trolleybus which you went passed on your travels.

    Between Raynes Park & New Malden on the old 604 & 605 routes, outside 245 Burlington Road, there is still a traction pole with a few short bits of wires hanging down from it.

    I have attached a screenshot of Google Earth – Streetview showing the pole. The pole was still there when I went past it on a 131 on Monday 08/08/2022.

    Ian Hardy

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  13. Perhaps people who care about the history of their public transport, care about (and tend to use) their present public transport too? The old adage is we can take a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink. A bus service, too, will only be as successful as its ability to attract (and retain) passengers.

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    1. If the services though are so infrequent and so unreliable and so expensive, they are not going to retain their existing customers let alone attract new ones add into the equation the continual cut to services then there is only one way bus services are going to go

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  14. 1) TfL bus bosses are probably cycle users not car users.
    2) How many buses from Waltham Cross (and similar areas) direct to central London now?

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