Durban Trolley Bus Memories

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My earliest memories of Durban’s Trolley buses goes virtually back to the days when we first arrived in Durban as immigrants in 1948. I had never seen a trolley bus before as in Alexandria Egypt, their public transport was single decker electric trams.

Pictures of trams in Alexandria Egypt. The terminus at Ramleh which is similar to the tram terminus that once existed in Pine Street Durban and is now the Parkade.

The trolley buses were therefore something new and to be experienced. I recall my father taking me upstairs to the very front seat. At that age I could stand and hold on to a chrome rail which ran across the front windows. Above the front fixed window was another small window which opened outwards and allowed air to come in and cool the upstairs passengers. As we had no motor car, the bus service was used most of the time so it became standard that my father would always take me upstairs to stop my urging. It was fun to look through the window elevated above street level. My mother was not that way inclined and so it was downstairs with her. Downstairs the seating was a step up from the rear platform where one got onto the bus with the help of a chrome pole, attached to the floor and roof of the boarding platform. Going into the bus, one passed two long bench seats facing each other on either side of the passage and further in there were about 4 or 5 rows of double seats facing the driver. My mother never liked the bench seats as she felt the passengers opposite would be looking at you and scrutinizing you. In addition, the bench seats sat only so many comfortably but then at times you would get someone who felt obliged to have a seat and so everyone squashed up to allow the “pusher in” in much to the indignation of the others. Along the roof ran two rails with leather strap handles. Standing room was allowed downstairs so there was a certain amount of shuffling as, if the bus was full, seated men rose to allow a lady who had just boarded to sit down. This necessitated all those standing to allow the lady to access the seat and for the male to grab a handle and stand for the rest of the journey. Offering up seats for ladies was the norm and no way would a school boy not stand up. As there were not that many boy schools in Durban then, most people identified the blazers so your school reputation was on the line.

I am not sure all the bus models were the same, I recall the name Sunbeam on a badge in the front . I also remember that some trolley buses had an electric sliding door on the pavement side of the bus (RHS looking at the bus from the front) and this was positioned at the front of the double seats.
I have looked for pictures of typical early Durban trolley buses showing the details I have mentioned but they are quite hard to find.

This incident apparently was unique. However it shows an early Durban trolley bus with the small window above the main window that I mention above.

I must say Durban’s bus service as so good that it virtually made it unnecessary for many small families to actually need a private motor car. As it was, many could not afford a motor car and on top of that it was rather unusual at that time to see a woman driving a motor car so they depended on the bus service. The change came about in the late 50s/early 60s when affordable cars were to be had, acquired by families and fathers and older family members became quasi-driving instructors. I recall apart from using the buses to go to school daily, our family would travel across to Durban central by trolley bus and then change to a motor bus out to Rossburgh to visit family members on weekends. During school holidays many children used the buses to visit school friends, go to the Beach, go to town and the cinemas.

The other peculiarities of the trolley buses I recall was the whirr of the electric motor as one pulled off, the exceptionally smooth ride and the occasional sudden stop if one of the overhead arms came off. These were rather rare but when it happened I seem to recall that the conductor got out and pulled out a long cane rod with a hook attached from under the bus. The overhead arms had tension springs which kept the power take off against the overhead catenary and when one came off the arm would spring up upwards and come to rest at a giddy angle. Other things I recall was that under the stair case leading upstairs was a single spring loaded seat which was intended for the conductor. At the back of the bus on the outside was a gutter at the bottom and above a rail that could accommodate fishing rods. Upstairs at the back alongside the stair case were two seats tucked against the back of the bus. These and the two in front of them would be reserved for “non whites”. The conductor would see to it that this limit was not exceeded and the seats kept reserved. No standing room was allowed upstairs and the double seats were either side of the central passage.
Another observance was the “running get off”. Quite often standing at bus stops or in town, you would see young males alighting from the buses whilst it was still in motion. This despite the warning signs saying “Wait until the bus stops before alighting”. It was quite an art as you had to jump off backwards and keep up the momentum as you hit the rolling road. It was to an extent a show of bravado in many cases especially in town in front of people standing in queues at bus stops.
I can honestly say that in my experience I never saw a trolley bus with a flat tyre. Again I cannot recall an accident although they must have occurred. They were actually very sedate, quiet and operated at such a moderate speed that you arrived at your destination relaxed.

The buses were parked in the sheds in Alice Street where all maintenance and repairs were carried out as well. I am not sure whether drivers and conductors were fixed pairs. They wore blue uniforms with peak caps. I think they wore DMT badging Durban Municipal Transport and bus number plates were all NDC, Natal Durban Corporation. Conductors who could whistle would do so to indicate to the driver to move on once all passengers had alighted or else used a normal soccer pea whistle. All conductors had a steel tin in which was kept excess money collected and I suppose as well as spare bus tickets. I seem to remember they also had a daily log to fill in. They also carried a coin change dispensers which they wore round their waists and a ticket punch to deface tickets tendered.

In all the years I never saw any bus toppling over but it did happen in Durban once in 1941. I show the picture above . It also is a special photo for me personally because I have a link to the shop in the background, Beach Fruiterers. Last time I saw it, it was a Surf Shop.

The Durban trolley bus service only served the Durban central area and kept more or less to the confines of the original Durban boundaries i.e. the Umgeni River , Ridge Road, the Umbilo River and the beach front. I won’t go into the whole complexities of the routes, but if one looks at the network generally it ran along Marine Parade from beyond Addington where it did a U turn right at Bell St across to Snell Parade where it did a U turn as well. The buses also went along the whole of Point Rd where they turned back close to where the Bluff ferry was. West and Smith Streets were totally covered. Then heading south they went along Umbilo Rd as far as Queen Mary Avenue where there was a terminus with a small building with seats where Queen Mary Ave and Umbilo Road intersected. Here the bus would turn and head back to town. Along this route the trolley buses deviated into the Berea/Glenwood area via Davenport Rd and headed for the Glenwood terminus in upper MacDonald Rd. At the terminus the rolley buses could turn and head back to town. The other long route was along Soldiers Way into First Avenue which became Stamford Hill Road and then up Windermere Rd to Trematon Drive where it met Ridge Road and headed to Overport . At Overport was another turning circle right outside the old Overport Telephone Exchange. This turning circle was for the buses which came up Berea Rd, turned into Musgrave Road and headed for Overport. At the Telephone Exchange the buses either turned back for town or else carried straight on along North Ridge Rd and Earl Haig Rd to meet up to the Ridge Road route at the Morningside Primary School terminus . There was also an obscure turning circle using Manton Crescent which was accessed via Valley View Road. This came off the Ridge route. Buses that did not turn off into Musgrave Rd carried on to the Toll Gate Bridge where they took a glide off road, up and over the bridge and then back down Berea Rd on into town. These are all the trolley bus routes I remember and they are open to correction and addition. I am not sure whether Kevin Mardon who is the guru on Durban’s Transport System has ever put his knowledge down in book form.

I cannot remember the fare structure but seem to remember that from Sutton Park into town was 4 cents for an adult. Children paid less. Routes were divided into Stages which were determined by set lengths of the route. The more Stages making up the route, the higher the fare. I happen to have the remains of an old bus ticket book used by my late mother in law travelling from the Bluff into town. It shows 14 stages. The tickets of this booklet covered trips ranging from 9 to 14 stages and cost 11 cents a trip. Ticket booklets were made available according to the trip you used. I seem to recall that Stages were marked on Bus Stop sign boards and conductors got to know them en route. Therefore if you boarded a bus 2 stages out of town you paid x amount, 1 stage out of town a lesser amount. Tickets were punched and handed back to the passenger so I am not sure how income was recorded. Perhaps the code number on the tickets was written down at the start of a shift.

A pre paid ticket booklet used from the Bluff and showing stages 9 to 14 on the right hand sized.

In later years a more sophisticated ticket dispenser was used which issued a smaller ticket and I think did some of the recording. Again this aspect would best be explained by someone who knew the system. For pensioners, concession tickets were available and here again I have a concession ticket and concession card of my late mother in law. The concession card was valid for one year only and had to be renewed. It went along with the 10 journey coupon which was available at certain outlets all over town. The concession ticket reduced the cost of bus fare. These concession cards were introduced when all the buses in Durban were changed to single deckers doing away with the conductor leaving the driver to be the sole person in charge. A “gadget” accepted your ticket as you entered the bus, stamped and clicked off a tag after which you retrieved your ticket. You also had to show the driver your concession card. Below is an example of such a concession card which has one more “journey” available shown by the “1” on the left with journeys 10 to 2 all clicked off and punched out. Not clear to see but this coupon was bought at “Cards Galore Greenacres Passage Durban”.

A pensioner’s concession card which allowed the holder reduced bus fares.

A coupon ticket valid for ten journeys and described above.

I cannot recall the reason why the Durban Corporation decided to end the use of the double decker and trolley buses. According to the book Facts about Durban Third Edition the last diesel powered double decker bus ran on the 30th April 1967. The trolley buses followed the next year when a Sunbeam, NDC 2040 left the streets on 11th April 1968. It is a shame as well that neither a tram, a diesel double decker nor a trolley bus survives in Durban as a memento. A double decker is kept at Baynesfield Estate and is in running condition but I do not think it was part of Durban’s fleet. One can add to this list as there is neither a Sunderland , nor a Short flying boat nor a whaler that exists that would recall when all these were part and parcel of the Durban scene.

Above the diesel double decker bus preserved at Baynesfield Estate not far from Thornville.

This topic has previously been commented on in Facts about Durban. If you want to read it here is the link : https://www.fad.co.za/2015/08/01/trolley-buses/

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3 Responses

  1. Rodney Coyne
    | Reply

    One peculiarity of the Morningside trolley service was that some trolleys did a circuit of Puntans Hill. I was told that a senior member of the transport board (or whatever it was called) lived at Puntans Hill and the service was laid on for his benefit. This was quite possibly true as there was otherwise no reason really for the trolleys to make the detour.

  2. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Rodney,
    That is news to me but it could be. Trematon Drive was rather exclusive and Morningside had some fine houses. Puntans Hill was Route 18 and I think North Ridge Road was Route 21 if I remember correctly. I knew people in Manton Crescent and that was an off route turn around where the trolley bus had to go down Valley View Road and end up doing a U Turn in the crescent. I often wondered why that was as the buses could have carried on from Trematon Drive into Earl Haig and vice versa but they didn’t. Can you remember the Florida Road route? Did it do a U turn near Jameson Park or did it turn left and go across the Berea via Essenwood Road? Cannot say I ever did that trip only remembering the trolley buses going that way from Stamford Hill Road.

  3. Rodney Coyne
    | Reply

    In the early 50s our family lived in North Ridge Road. I regularly caught the trolley bus to my piano lessons, getting off at the corner of Essenwood Road and Silverton Road. I can’t remember anything about the Florida Road service, but I do remember that there was a tram terminus at the top of Florida Road, just below Jameson Park so I suppose this was also a terminus for the trolley buses.

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