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Public transport without the bus – a counterfactual meander

Ed Costello

ya boi from the Mersey
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
The Pool of Life
The bus as we know it is arguably the most fundamental aspect of modern public transport. They are incredibly flexible, have minimal special infrastructure requirements and are comparatively cheap to build and operate. Their chief alternatives, the tram and the trolleybus (and the interurban, for leftpondians), were chiefly electric; better for air and noise pollution, but more expensive and reliant on special infrastructure. After WWII, with the rise of the car, the bus – with its common infrastructure – came to dominate.

But what if it didn't?


In Busless World, or at least this particular iteration of it, Catenary is King. The train, the tram and the trolleybus are common sights in cities the world over, and so is the tangle of overhead wires that comes with them. Knowing exactly what is a tram, a train or a trolleybus can be a bit difficult, but we'll come to that.

Let's start our journey as many others do; in one of the vast car-parks that dot the city's edgelands. At first glance one could be forgiven in mistaking it for a retail park from our world, delineated by the familiar boxy shapes of retail units; but this car-park is, if anything, too big. And I've never seen a retail park in our world with such a dizzying array of wires suspended over the entrance.

As we watch, a gleaming trolleybus arrives, whirring to a halt and discharging a decent number of passengers; a fair few head for the shops, but most just get in their cars and leave – and those that are shopping overwhelmingly visit one business and then leave. Clearly, this place is not a destination in and of itself.

The trolleybus has gone, but the timetable suggests another is due shortly; the map in the shelter reveals the next one due doesn't go direct to the city centre, and will require changing onto a tram about halfway there. Or maybe the trolley becomes a tram…? Whatever, it's not particularly clear; fortunately the ticket machine is a little easier to understand, and we're able to buy a ticket that will get us there and back again.

If the timetable is accurate, the trolleys of Busless World don't seem much more inclined to stick to it than OTL's buses. There's none of the live update screens or dot-matrix scrolls one might expect in what appears to be a rather important interchange either, which is annoying. While we're waiting, a trolley arrives from town; rather than turning round, however, it disengages its poles and continues down the unelectrified road out of town, making a rather bus-like din. One of our fellow passengers, seeing your shocked expression, points after it. "Hybrid," they say, by way of explanation. Before you can embarrass us further, our trolley arrives and we all pile in; it's a double-decker, so we're going on the top deck.

This part of the journey is excruciatingly slow, with plenty of stops and lots of sharp corners; at least it's pretty quiet, so people don't have to shout over the rattle of the engine and chairs and every other part of the vehicle like on a normal bus. After a while, you note that we seem to be keeping away from the big arterial roads where we might make some quicker progress. The passenger from before, the one who pointed out the hybrid to you, is sitting nearby; you remark on this to them.

They look at you as though you have suddenly grown an extra arm. "Well, no, because that's where the cars go," they explain, as though you are very stupid.

I am also looking at you as though you have suddenly grown an extra arm. This is partly because I do not wish to arouse suspicion, and partly because I have just decided not to invite you on any more trips.

This does make sense, however; there aren't as many cars driving on these roads as might be expected in our world. There does seem to be some kind of vehicular segregation at work here.

Presently, our trolley reaches one of these big arterial roads, and yes, there are a lot of cars (and vans, and lorries, and every other form of road transport). Apart from our junction, which is at right-angles to the road, there are no wires expect for the tramline that runs down the central reservation – yet apparently our trolley goes down this road…? This conundrum is answered when our trolley lurches across the carriageway and then turns down the central reservation, now drawing power from the tram catenary. This must be where the trolley 'becomes' a tram, then.

Our progress is much quicker now; in a few short minutes, we reach the interchange where we swap our trolley for a tram. That interchange is more like a mini railway junction than a bus stop, with four platforms in the middle of a roundabout; this seems to be the cause of a fair bit of congestion for road users, the suckers. The timetable isn't optimised for connections, either; the tram we want is just leaving as our trolley arrives, and a quick perusal of the timetable reveals that our trolley wasn't late and that's just what was supposed to happen. Still, there's another one along four minutes later – and this one, like our trolley, is a double-decker. The word 'bullet-tram' springs to mind, followed by visions unbidden of acid baths, the gold standard and hot Foot-on-Powell action soundtracked by a catchy 1960s theme tune jingle.

Almost immediately, we're off the dual carriageway and running on ordinary roads; this particular street happens to be pretty wide, so we're running down the middle as cars pass by on either side. There's a lot of complicated signage above and around us, explaining to motorists exactly what they should do in the presence of such magisterial tramage. I wonder aloud why anyone would drive down such streets, and our passenger friend looks at me as though I have suddenly grown an extra head.

Three stops later, we come to a heavy-rail line on an embankment. The tramline diverges; the main route continues along the road, while the fork rises to meet and join the railway line. Majestically, and in violation of many real-world loading gauges, our tram rises to join the railway, revealing that it is in fact a tram-train.

Our speedy journey to the central railway station passes a ring of towering, ziggurat-like multistorey car-parks; every street past this point bears the single red lines that are the multiverse-spanning symbols for congestion charge zones, and almost every street bears the electric filigree of catenary. The highways and byways are still thronged with traffic – delivery vans, taxis, motorcycle couriers, emergency services – but there are also more cyclists, and somehow more pedestrians, than in our world.

We do't have much time on arrival to explore; we have to get back to our departure point sharpish, and the only train that can get us there in time departs from the opposite platform in five minutes' time. We barely make it up out of the subway before it pulls in-

…Hang on. That- that can't be right.

Oh, no. Oh please, God, no…

It's… It's a…

…I don't know how to tell you this, but it's a Pacer.

A Pacer with a pantograph.



(This was supposed to be a piece to provoke discussion. Because I am a helpless narcissist, it got a bit more write-y than that, but I still want to encourage discussion of the topic and thus willingly accept brutal dismemberings of each and every aspect of my scenario)

Ed Costello

ya boi from the Mersey
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
The Pool of Life
Can we have bullet trams?
Because I may never again get the chance to record it for posterity:

Bullet Tram
Bullet Tram
Does whatever a bullet can
Kills you dead
In a beat
You're just a corpse
In the street
Look out!
Here comes the Bullet Tram

Bullet Tram
Bullet Tram
Friendly neighbourhood Bullet Tram
Murders all
In its path
Final stop
The acid baths
Look out!
There goes the Bullet Tram


Abbot of Unreason
Published by SLP
Great stuff, Ed.

From the reference to vehicle segregation can we presume there is some form of BRT-like system in place for trolleybuses?

Also, with catenaries everywhere, might any moves towards electric cars in such a universe include experimentation in pantographs to draw from the overhead wires? Yes, à la the Super Mario Bros. film.


Most Likely To Obsess Over A Mediocre Tory PM
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
@Ed Costello

Very intriguing piece, especially idea of a trolley seamlessly moving between different types of power, I. E. the wires, the catenary and so forth. Pollution must be down, but I can only imagine ticket prices must have the same price structure, and controversy, as season tickets for trains in OTL

(Also the Gabb references, you maniac)
Actually, what are the precise definitions of trolley, tram, and train?
In my head I always thought of trolleys as single carriages, trams as chains of trolleys, and trains as large trams with dedicated lines. (Damn now I've got "train is a trolley chain" stuck in my head!)
AFAIK trolley is in North America (more particular, the East Coast) what elsewhere is called a tram (and on the West Coast and in Toronto is called a streetcar). Outside North America, trolley is usually referred to as what North Americans would call either a trackless trolley or trolleybus. Now, the difference between all that and trains - that would be the cause of nitpicking over what precise definitions are.


Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Published by SLP
The thing on top of a tram, trolleybus, etc. that connects to the overhead power lines.

I've always found it a weird term because it's more commonly (relatively) used for those devices used to copy or expand drawings through tracing before copiers existed. Supposedly it's because both of them have lots of connected arms, but it seems a bit of a stretch to me.


Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Published by SLP

Built cheaply (originally with furniture, doors etc. designed for busses), they do not have a great reputation in UK rail circles.
I must confess I had never heard that name for them until I heard Iain use it, despite using them a lot myself.

Over the stretch I ride them on (Doncaster-Sheffield) the horror stories about the ride quality aren't really true in my experience, but they're often unclean inside and the jolt when they start the diesel engine is unpleasant.

Alex Richards

*Eyes Ashfield nervously*
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
I've been spending a rather lengthy amount of time thinking about what Derby might look like in such a world, and while I could go on yet further, this is my best guess (for the moment at least).

So for the starting point, this is the OTL bus and trolleybus network in c.1958. Realistically Ilkeston wouldn't have gotten rid of theirs in 1952 either, but more of that later. As you can see large parts of the modern city aren't served very well (mainly due to being outside the County Borough's boundaries) and there's a lot of closed stations on the main lines even by then.

The first question is one of roads- busless world will be one where, paradoxically, roads probably get more investment than OTL as congestion from cars and trolleybuses/trams will be higher in bottlenecks. The easiest starting point is to have the OTL plans the M64 Stoke-M1 motorway and the northern extension of the M42 built, along with the Raynesway-Broadway stretch of the Outer Ringroad (which would have been finished in the 40s if it weren't for the war). From there, somebody is going to propose a new A6 road anyway considering everything, and I think the A52, A38 and A61 improvements are all pretty likely to happen, but notably the Inner Ring Road is probably avoided here (barring the addition of a new bridge and improvements to existing roads for the A52 north of the city centre, here slightly further north than IOTL and potentially much more like Friargate than St. Alkmund's Way. I've posited the A6 following the A61 before cutting across to join with its current route mainly as a consequence of the greater restriction in the city centre- whether this means that Pride Park and the A6 there are butterflied I'm not sure. A few car parks are also plotted out here. The A6 link road to the M64 is a later addition to that junction and whether there would be an interface with the A514 I keep going back and forth on.

That just leaves the question of public transport. Derby's current bus network is this incredible mess of intersecting routes. Some of these approximately follow the rail lines and trolleybuses of the late 50s, but many of course don't. Busless world is going to mean effectively no public transport in many rural communities it has to be said.

Putting it all together, the most obvious starting point is the fate of the railways. Considering that the Melbourne branch south of Weston was already being dug up by the late 40s and every station on it was closed to passengers in the 30s, I can't see it surviving- the current Sinfin branch probably sticks about, but the construction of the M641 (a proposed spur IOTL) will lead to most of the section between Rolls Royce and the mainline being removed then. I also can't see Pear Tree and Normanton being of much use in this scenario. I've posited a number of special services for Rolls Royce and the Baseball Ground football stadium but otherwise not much here.

On the other hand, it seems likely that Borrowash and Breaston with Draycott could be retained as suburban stations on a Derby-Transport run route that loops on down to Long Eaton without the bus. An interchange with an Ilkeston-East Midlands airport tram-train (leaving the railway to go by new tram routes once at the outskirts of Castle Donington) occurs at Trent Junction here. The Friargate Line's role in providing a direct link to Ilkeston and some public transport makes the existence of a line here reasonable as well- Ive posited a Park and Ride at Etwall and eventual re-opening of Mickleover Station as well.

The tram itself is more modest in terms of expansion, mainly adding a few routes between different radii extending into newer parts of the city. I've also posited some sort of interchange system with the Ilkeston trolleybus which here travels a slightly altered rendition of their old trolleybus routes. There's potentially more routes that might come about here but this is a sort of approximate suggestion of the mid-point of what could have happened.

Thoughts appreciated of course.