Public Transport in Durban - a brief history

By Allan Jackson - 31 August 2003



Durban's first form of public transport was a coach service between Durban and Pietermaritzburg which was started by John Dare and ran for the first time on 15th March 1860. The coach was aptly named Perseverance because the journey used to take the whole day - one way.

The Dale brothers started a horse coach service in the town in the CBD 1870 and, on 25th March 1880, horse-drawn double-decker trams were introduced by Ramsay Collins. A competing service was started on 19th October 1885 by AK Murray and the two later joined forces under the banner of the Durban Borough Tramways Company. The first municipal tramline in South Africa was laid in Florida Road and first used on 12th September 1892 with horses still providing the motive power. On 1 August 1899, the Durban Municipality bought out the private Durban Borough Tramways Company for £114000.

This view of West Street looking towards the Berea from from Field Street was taken on Christmas Eve, 1898. It shows a pretty good cross section of the transport available at the time including single and double-decker horse-drawn trams. Eagle-eyed readers will note Jackson Bros. music store on the left; there is no family connection that we know about.
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Oldest Route

One of the oldest transport routes still running in Durban is the Umbilo Number 7 route which originally went from the terminus opposite the town hall, along West Street, Umbilo Road, Stellawood Road and Bartle Road to the terminus in Prospect Road. Serving on this route have been horse-drawn trams [the last ran on 25 september 1903], electric trams, electric trolley busses, and petrol and diesel single and double-decker busses.

Electric Trams

Trams powered by electricity were introduced on 1 May 1902 and, although the first ones were imported, the municipal workshops in Durban began building their own tram bodies in 1910 and fitting them with imported motors. The trams built in Durban had the distinction of being the largest in the world. They were equipped with a driving position at both ends and passenger seat backs which could be flipped to allow the passengers to face forwards no matter which way the tram was travelling.

In addition to the normal passenger trams the Durban Municipal Transport Department operated a number of specialised trams including watering trams, which sprayed unpaved streets to keep the dust down, observation trams which were used to check the state of the tram lines, and stone trucks which were used to transport stone from the quarry near the Umgeni River for use in road building.

The department also operated two funeral trams which are believed to be unique in the world and which provided space for a coffin and twelve mourners to sit. The funeral tram service first ran in 1907 and caused a huge outcry among the town's funeral directors who were still using horse-drawn carriages. The service for the white population of Durban was suspended after the second trip although that for non-whites continued until 1931.

The last electric tram (no. 7015), affectionately known as Old Faithful, ran in Durban on 2nd August 1949. Dear Old Durban author Valerie Miller's mother, Mrs. Aileen Gordon-Huntley, had the unique distinction of riding on both the first and the last trams.

This picture of Old Faithful, Durban's last tram, was taken on 2 August 1948 in Musgrave Road outside Jameson Park.

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Truck Busses

July 1919 saw the introduction by Indian entrepreneurs of truck busses which were trucks converted to carry passengers. The first truck bus was apparently owned by Mr Siddhoo and operated between Riverside and the center of town. By August a second truck bus belonging to Mr Marimuthu was operating between Clairwood and town and soon there were many more competing for business. The truck busses were the forerunners of the more than 250 bus lines and more than 450 busses which, in 2003, are still providing a valuable service to the community.

The above picture taken in 1955 shows a typical Indian-owned bus, This example is a 1946 model AEC Regent III bus belonging to Lakeview Passenger Transport which was owned by Mr Ramroop.
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Durban Transport received its first three single-decker Thornycroft petrol-engined busses on 15 June 1925, on 24 Nov 1934, its first Dennis diesel single decker bus and, on 20 August 1938, its first diesel-powered Daimler double-decker bus. The last diesel double-decker bus ran on 30 April 1967.

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The picture is of NDC 3228, an AEC Regent Mark III diesel double decker bus which belonged to the Durban Corporation. The pic was taken in 1960 at the intersection of Edith Benson Crecent and Sydenham Road outside the Botanic Garden.
On July Handicap Day in 1966 a mechanic converted one of these busses into a single decker in an instant when he took it on a test drive and drove it under one of the low bridges which carry the Greyville Racecourse track over DLI Avenue.

Trolley Busses

The Transport Department decided that its trams were getting old and electric trolley busses seemed a very modern and flexible alternative to the trams so a number were ordered. The first one ran on the Marine Parade Number 1 Route on 24 February 1935. Locals named the new busses Silent Death because they moved so silently that people couldn't hear them coming, unlike the clanging trams, and they had to be extra careful not to step out into the road in front of them.

On 5th March 1941 the Transport Department achieved a world record when it became the only trolley bus operator ever to overturn one. The event happened on the corner of West Street and Farewell Street injuring 37 passengers and experts including the manufacturers were amazed because they had believed such a feat was impossible.

Durban Transport holds the world record for being the only trolley bus operator to ever turn one over. The incident happened at 7,15am on 5th March 1941.
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A feature of Durban's trolley busses which made them unique in the world was that they were all equipped with fishing rod racks at the back.

The Trolley busses were operated by a driver and a conductor who would whistle to let the driver know when he could proceed. Several passengers were injured after a parrot living at the Waverly Hotel learned to imitate the conductor's whistle and the busses would start moving while passengers were still getting on and off. A system of hand signals was developed and used outside the Waverly and a couple of other places around town where other parrots had learned the same trick.

At least one famous person died on the top deck of one of Durban's trolley busses. This was local sports legend Bill Payn [see entry for 1921 in Facts] on Saturday, 31 October 1959. In mid-2003 I met retired Durban City Policeman Magnus Hillstrom who had attended the scene and had attempted in vain to revive him.

A Sunbeam Trolley Bus turns from Pine Street into Albert Street in 1962.
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Durban eventually had 116 trolley busses from such manufacturers as Sunbeam, AEC and Leyland and the last official trip was performed by NDC 2222 (no. 59) on 11th March 1968 which, after some restoration, now stands in the James Hall Transport Museum in Johannesburg. The last trolley bus, a Sunbeam [NDC 2040], left the streets on 11 April 1968.

I remember the busses quite well from my childhood when riding on one was a great adventure because you could never predict when the bus's trolley arms would jump their wires [come loose from the overhead power cables] and the driver would have to hop out with his long bamboo retriever pole and reattach the bus to the wires which, incidentally, carried 500 volts DC.

Transport Apartheid

The busses and trams belonging to Durban Transport had always been racially segregated with the front seats being reserved for whites and blacks being allowed to use the ones in the rear.

The first municipal bus service serving a black area [Chesterville] was introduced on 1 August 1943 and, on 1 May 1955, Durban Transport inaugurated a Green Line service which served mainly black residential areas to complement the Blue Line service which operated mostly in the white areas. The Green Line busses became affectionately known as Green Mambas.

On 14 April 1968 Durban Transport was forced by government legislation to institute total racial segregation on its busses and so blacks were confined to the Green Line service and whites to their Blue Line busses. There were exceptions to this rule to permit domestic servants, for example, to accompany their employers on shopping trips or to escort children in their care to school.

All apartheid on Durban's busses was abolished on 12 November 1986 and, although the Green and Blue Line busses did keep running, people could ride on whichever bus they chose. The two services combined in the present Aqualine Service on 1 July 1994.

Transport Newcomers

Mini-bus taxis were introduced to Durban on 1 June 1987 and by 1999 there were approximately 8000 of them with the vast majority being Toyota Hiaces and most being equipped with extremely powerful sound systems. [There were, by way of contrast, only 467 metered taxis at the time.] In 2003 it is still very uncommon to see a white person using a mini-bus taxi although some do and find them fast and cheap.

On 28 November 1987 Durban Transport introduced its Mynah Bus service with 72 Mercedes Benz 21-seater busses. The Mynah Busses have been ubiquitous in Durban since then in much the same way that their avian namesake, the Indian Mynah [Acridotheres tristis] has been since being introduced to South Africa through Durban.

Durban Transport

In terms of the size of its bus fleet Durban Transport was the largest municipal operator in South Africa. On 1 August 2003 it would have been 104 years old had it not been sold to the Remant (Pty) Ltd and Alton Coach Africa Consortium on 1 June 2003 for R70-million. Those in favour of privatisation say that the ratepayer will save approximately R40-million a year but I'm sure I'm not alone in believing that a mistake was made. I don't think much good ever came from privatising public transport because it's a service and not the sort of thing that can be run really well and still make enough profit to satisfy its investors.


A Big Thank-You

I am extremely grateful to Kevan Mardon of the eThekweni Municipality for most of the facts and dates in this article which saved me an enormous amount of research time.
Kevan's knowlege of Durban's transport history is immense as is his collection of pictures and memorabilia. He is available to give presentations on his pet subject [and early South African radio stations] to local Durban groups and he can be contacted on (031)
He is pictured above with one of Durban's first parking meters [introduced 14 October 1957].


Visit the

Durban Historical
Transport Museum

A number of historic vehicles are on show including a Trolley Bus and the only surviving complete 1958 GUY double-decker diesel which was the largest front-engined half-cab double-decker bus ever made.

The museum is very well worth a visit. It is located at the Durban Drive Inn in Brickhill Road.

Entrance is free and for a modest sum you can actually drive a double-decker bus.

Telephone: (031) 205571

If you're a business person reading this you could easily make your company into a local hero by supporting the museum's work. With the right kind of support it could become a major tourist attraction for Durban ensuring that its precious vehicles are still around for your grand-kids to look at. Contact: Herbie on 083 289 0509.



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