A trial of a new electric bus in South London could see the pantograph return to London’s buses, some 60 years after the last Trolleybus ran in London.

Not the same as the old system though, as these pantographs will be upside down, mounted on fixed locations with the buses driving up to them to recharge their batteries.

If you’re not familiar with the term, a pantograph is the unit mounted on the roof of an electric vehicle, typically a train or tram to collect electricity through contact with an overhead wire.

The latest development is part of TfL’s plans to convert its bus fleet to zero-emission at the point of use, by switching them to electric supply. A number of bus garages are already switching to electric buses, and this works well for around three-quarters of London’s buses which have compact routes and can return to the garage for a battery top-up. However, that leaves about a quarter of bus routes unsuitable for that sort of conversion to electric battery operation.

A trial of a hydrogen double-decker bus will investigate that alternative, but TfL says that it has high costs and a limited supply chain. So, they’re looking to test an idea for “opportunity charged” buses, which have their batteries topped up along the route at convenient locations, by overhead power supplies.

The trial being proposed is along Route 358, which runs along a long path between Crystal Palace and Orpington. The route is currently served by a fleet of single-deck diesel buses, which will be replaced by the sleek looking “ie tram” from Spanish bus and coach maker, Irizar.

Irizar ie Tram – Source planning document

When the new electric buses pull into Crystal Palace or Orpingonton bus stops, a pantograph will drop down from the charging unit to connect with the bus and top up the batteries.

Overhead pantograph charger at Crystal Palace – Source planning document

The bus can be charged in just a few minutes, making it ideal for use at end-of-route bus stops.

The old trolleybuses needed to have power cables along their entire route, which was unsightly, and the last one ran in London in 1962. If the trial works, in 2022 a fleet of pantograph charged buses will return to London’s streets.

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36 comments
  1. Maurice Reed says:

    This certainly looks to be the future especially without the unsightly overhead wires of the trolley days. I wonder how accurately the bus needs to be parked to ensure good contact?

  2. Andy says:

    Just be aware that hydrogen is not that green at all. For a start most hydrogen available right now is “blue” – i.e. it comes from a by product of fossil fuels. Secondly ever “green” hydrogen – produced by renewables – wastes 2/3rds of the energy as its created from electricity and then later converted back to it to power the vehicle.

    • Jo says:

      And how do you think electricty is produced? Not exactly green either, is it…

    • Mark says:

      When we transition to renewable electricity generation we’ll need to store the excess to cover the shortfall when it’s not windy or sunny. Batteries currently are WAY too expensive to do that (they’re excellent for replacing peaker plants) so one option is to electrolytically generate H2. Hydrogen is _a_ route to decarbonisation, there’s no single solution for this.

    • Pete D says:

      No, most hydrogen available now is “grey” from natural gas (“brown” comes from coal). “blue” hydrogen is when carbon capture is used when hydrogen is produced from natural gas. However, “blue” hydrogen production is always promised in the future and not viable today.

    • Pete D says:

      Electricity will be net zero by 2050. It’s the law!

    • JohnC says:

      The law can be changed if it is the will of Parliament, or there is such a thing as a derogation.

    • Andy Kingdon says:

      If electricity is produced from renewables (hydro, wind and solar) its the most green source of power that’s easily available. Its growing fast. When combined with nuclear power at some times this meets ALL of the UK electricity needs. There’s a whole set of research project on geological storage of energy to allow “surplus” renewable energy to be stored. All will work the research is into performance, practicality and viability. Hydrogen may be a good storage medium it just needs to be assessed against other possibilities (Eg Compressed air storage in caverns or aquifers)

  3. Mike Lowe says:

    I agree with this pantograph system, having been on a similar rail system in Australia 2 years ago. The train stopped for 40 seconds at a stop while it part-recharged its batteries. brilliant, but that system was mounted on rails when surely the ultimate is to dispense with rails and continuous overhead wiring. The ultimate, especially as longer-term developments will permit those charging times to progressively reduce.

  4. David Winter says:

    Saw something similar in Tel Aviv on 2017. The bus had two bow collectors (like European 3 phase AC systems). I presume at certain stops, they had busway type guide rails to align the bus, then up bows for a charge.

    This type of system generally has a bias towards supercaps, with some Li type batteries in the mix.

  5. Melvyn says:

    London never had pantographs not even trams as trams used either underground conduit system with power picked up via a frog beneath the tram or a single overhead trolley pole while trolley buses had two poles connected to overhead wires.

    Trials are underway I believe on route 69 where power is picked up from beneath a bus in Walthamstow Bus Station .

    For some reason when trolley buses overhead was removed the streets didn’t look as wide !

    • Chris L says:

      The 69 trial never got started. The buses are running as normal hybrids.

  6. Chris H says:

    Bring on a London wide tram or trolley bus system to replace the existing network of buses – there will obviously be routes where overhead wires or any of the mooted alternatives may be difficult to implement, but all in all, this is a good idea.

    NZ (via the private operator who decimated the Wellington bus network) had trolley buses up until relatively recently – it was a shame when these were taken out, a move that many disagreed with.

    There will always be the not in my back yard people, who don’t want overhead wires, so perhaps an alternative?

  7. Andrew Braddock says:

    Opportinity charging requires buses to stand at terminal points for a number of minutes but if running late those minutes may not be available. Experience elsewhere has shown this requires more vehicles to operate the route(s) concerned. In addition, the very short charging periods that some opp-charging systems imply does the batteries no good. Better to invest in IMC (Im Motion Charging) Trolleybuses which, as the name implies charge their batteries while running under sections of route equipped with overhead wires. No problem with non-existent layover time; no “frying” of batteries and cheaper in terms of whole-life costs. IMC trolleybuses are in use on several existing trolleybus systems (Arnhem, Lausanne, Limoges, Linz, Lyon, Riga, St Etienne, Zurich, for example) and Prague is bringing trolleybuses back to take advantage of this solution. Berlin and several other cities are planning to do the same. Only 50-60% of a route needs to be wired-up with the rest operated on batteries.

    • ianVisits says:

      However, the capital costs of installing all those wires vs just a couple of static charging points are considerable, and the planning/regulations needed to install all that cabling on often private buildings would delay a trial by several years.

      Much better to test the idea with a quick simple system and see if it works knowing that it’s equally quick and cheap to deploy elsewhere, than to invest years and far more money that then might not fix the problem this particular route is testing.

  8. Melvyn says:

    It should be remembered that when trolley buses were first introduced they used the equipment already in place to power trams and away from London it was simply a Matter of erecting extra wiring as trolley buses use two wires . While in London overhead had to be erected in areas served by trams which used conduit pick up system although the start of WWII meant most of south London was never converted. The system also used substations etc used by trams so much of the infrastructure was in place and had many years life left .

    Today we would be building from scratch and when you consider the tonnage of wires above Major junctions it would simply not be feasible given development of battery technology.

  9. Jimster says:

    @ Jo says: 1 June 2021 at 11:32am
    40% of UK electricity is carbon free and will only get greener. This is very unlikely to happen with other fuels.

  10. Jimster says:

    Harrogate Bus Company saw an increase in passenger numbers when they went for these opportunity charging dropping pantograph buses:
    https://airqualitynews.com/2020/02/13/harrogates-electric-buses-are-blazing-a-trail/

  11. Maurice Reed says:

    Had another thought on this. One pole(either positive or negative) is from the drop-down pantograph but what about the return path? Can’t be through the wheels to ground, rubber tyres.

  12. JP says:

    Overhead wires for IMC for half the route? Apart from the issues mentioned ante, what about the mess above our heads and the titillating trials of denizens of certain postcodes having the money and clout to ensure that they’re NIMBY? What’s wrong with subsurface as before – along with guide rails (oh!) coz there’s fewer horses to electrocute nowadays?

  13. Peter Goldsmith says:

    There is a saying “there is nothing new under the sun”. I remember that LT had this as news in the late 70’s. The idea was then called COMBAT; combined bus and trolleybus. It was a great idea, but sadly it came to nothing.

  14. Brian Wharf says:

    Technology has moved on sufficiently to accept higher capacity charging rates since the days of Alkali based batteries. The lower part of the Lithium Ion’s capacity can be rapid charged easily. It’s only after 65-70% where rapid charging is possible but less efficient. Where every stand, the driver is now entitled to a toilet stop, I’m sure opportunity charging will not be too much of an issue and as time goes on, overhead charging can be added at stops along the way similar to Seville for example.

  15. John Watkins says:

    I thought I’d seen references to induction charging – so no overhead wires and no conduit channel – turning itself on and off as the vehicle travels over.

    Quite a lot of road digging probably required though…

  16. Andrew Braddock says:

    The reality is that every possible option has been tried and tested by a number of continental cities and in Berlin, for example, a recent study has shown that the IMC trolleybus achieves lowest whole-life costs (something we fail to understand in the UK). BVG plans to introduce a five-route network in Spandau with no complex overhead layouts, just plain wire along the streets which most of the routes use in common. Note too that after years of battery bus development China is returning to the trolleybus – especially in Beijing and Shanghai.

  17. dik leatherdale says:

    There’s a very similar system in the central area of Vienna and no other buses appear to be allowed within the Ringstrasse area. The pantograph is mounted on top of the bus and makes contact with what looks like a pair of trolleybus wires at the terminii. This only makes sense if there is an insulating section in the centre of the pantograph. It does require a degree of accuracy in finding the right alignment when arriving at the terminus.

  18. James says:

    I live along the 358 route, in an area with currently poor air quality. I have ridden the route a few times and it has a number of challenges, including steep hills and sometimes long delays in the rush hour due to traffic. TfL have chosen a route that will give this technology a good, hard test.

    • Adrian Betham says:

      Perhaps descending steep hilĺs will lead to regenerative braking. In traffic jams there won’t be diesel engines ticking over to no good purpose.

  19. Chris says:

    I like the idea but it looks like a child drawn the station visualisation, so I’m presuming this is very early stage development…

    • ianVisits says:

      There aren’t many children who can draw that well, and why do you need more information than the drawing conveys?

  20. Adrian Betham says:

    Seville trams run this way. Each stop has a shelter with an unobtrusive projecting bar. When stopped the pantograph rises to be recharged and as I recall comes down again only after the tram has made its initial power hungry start.

  21. Liam says:

    Good looking bus – seems to have great visibility for the driver too. It does appear very low to the ground though. Will it go over the speed bumps and potholes without ‘crashing’ into the road surface? It might be an optical illusion from the curves of the bus though.

    I also wonder about ice and electrical conductivity problems in the winter. But I’m sure there are brilliant minds involved in thinking all these through.

    • ianVisits says:

      “Will it go over the speed bumps and potholes without ‘crashing’ into the road surface?” <-- really?

  22. Andy McDougall says:

    This is certainly a step in the right direction but I feel that IMC (trolleybus with battery storage on board) is a better solution. Most of the visual mess with traditional trolleybus wiring was at junctions – which were also top locations for the poles skipping off the wires – and this sort of complexity is simply not needed when battery power can be used from the last stop before the junction to the next one after it. Prague and Spandau are going to be well worth watching to see how they get on.

  23. Cliff says:

    How long will it take the buses to recharge at the terminus using the pantograph system.

    Does this allow for late running buses who may be terminated early along the route. Or Go in and straight out of the terminus again to try and make up time and keep to the schedule. Just a thought.

  24. Paul says:

    They’ve already had exactly this design working for years in Dordrecht in the Netherlands so yeah, why not here?

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