Clean and quiet, London once boasted a fleet of 20 electric buses. They were more efficient and reliable than their petrol equivalents, and operated on battery power. Mounted under the bus, the batteries had a 60 km range and could be removed and swapped for a fresh one in just three minutes.
This was in 1906, and the bus looked like this:
The London Electrobus Company ran a bus service between Victoria and Kilburn from 1907 to 1910, the world’s first fully operational electric bus route. Their buses were popular with the public, and the company had ambitious plans for expansion.
Unfortunately, they also had a couple of crooks at the helm of the company. They failed to pay the engineering firms that had developed their battery technologies. They raised money on false pretences, including fake patents. Investors’ money was siphoned off by the owners of the company, which duly collapsed. And that was the end of the electrobuses in London.
The electric bus finally returned to the city almost exactly 110 years later. Electric always a better option for city travel, with far less noise and air pollution, and London got there in the end.
I wasn’t aware of this story until my dad passed on the article in the New Scientist. Interestingly, it echoes the experience with the black cab, which launched as an electric vehicle in 1897. They had a similar battery swapping technique, but were simply ahead of their time. Tyres hadn’t been invented yet, and the heavy batteries shook the taxis apart on their wooden wheels. They are going electric too, 120 years later.
Between the two unfortunate stories of taxis and the buses, London’s transport could have looked completely different. Still, better late than never, and I look forward to catching an electric bus one of these days when I’m in the city.
- Incidentally, London is behind the curve when compared to some other places. As of January this year, all of Shenzhen’s buses are electric – over 16,000 of them.