Story: Public transport

Page 4. Buses

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Trams and buses in tandem

In the early 2000s buses were the dominant form of public transport in New Zealand cities.

Motor bus services began in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1904 A. C. Thompson of Timaru imported the first bus, drove it to Christchurch, and sparked the creation of the Christchurch Motor Omnibus Company.

Buses were often introduced to operate in conjunction with tramways, to extend the reach of public transport services. It was cheaper to put on a bus service than to extend the tram line. Buses carried passengers from the end of tram lines into suburban areas. Known as feeder services, they were run in particular by local authorities. They also worked in with train services.

Buses take on trams

From the early 1920s the number of private bus companies increased significantly – despite requirements to obtain a licence to operate, and heavy regulation by local authorities. Auckland had 190 buses running by 1921, and by 1926 there were 11 private operators running 44 buses in Wellington.

Buses increasingly competed on the trams’ routes. Despite the 1926 Motor Omnibus Act’s strict regulations to prevent competition with tramways, private bus services had a significant impact on the patronage and profitability of many tram routes.

Wellington was a battleground for private bus companies seriously competing with the council’s tramways. The municipal tram route to Karori had to compete with a bus company that collected passengers from the Kelburn Cable Car terminus. The tramline was never profitable, and the competition led to the city council taking over the cable car and bus service in 1946.

Diesel buses

Diesel buses were introduced in the mid-1930s, and soon replaced the earlier petrol vehicles. The first diesel bus in New Zealand was imported by Wellington’s Bell Bus Company and put into service in 1934.

Trolleybuses

An alternative to petrol or diesel buses was the electric trolleybus. The first in New Zealand was introduced by the Wellington City Council in 1924, to run between Kaiwharawhara and Thorndon, but was discontinued in the early 1930s because of a lack of patronage. At this time, trolleybuses were introduced in Christchurch and Auckland. By the early 1950s trolleybuses were also running in Dunedin, New Plymouth, and once again in Wellington.

Thank you driver

Wellingtonians have a habit of thanking the driver as they get off a bus. A contributor to Poneke’s blog in 2008 caught a bus through town at lunchtime and reported, ‘On board was a mother with a little girl aged between two and three. As they got off in Lambton Quay, the little girl loudly and clearly called out “Thank you driver!”’

Advantages of trolleybuses

Trolleybuses initially had advantages over diesel buses. They were more manoeuvrable, more powerful, and had better traction. They were ideal for operating in hilly areas such as Wellington. As they were based on the same technology as tramways, maintenance staff did not need retraining, and existing tramway workshops could be retained. In Auckland trolleybuses could also use the existing tramways’ power supply infrastructure.

Disadvantages of trolleybuses

The advantages of trolleybuses decreased as diesel-bus technology improved, and the costs of maintaining trolleybus infrastructure increased. The use of diesel buses became the norm. By the late 1960s trolleybuses were only being used in Dunedin and Wellington, with Dunedin ending its service in 1982. Trolleybuses still operate in Wellington, largely due to strong public support because they are environmentally friendly – they have no gas emissions.

How to cite this page:

Adrian Humphris, 'Public transport - Buses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-transport/page-4 (accessed 23 May 2017)

Story by Adrian Humphris, published 11 Mar 2010, reviewed & revised 11 Mar 2016