Bus Stop Classics: A Short History of Dayton’s Trolley Buses

  Mention Dayton Ohio and most folks will immediately think of the Wright Brothers and the birthplace of aviation. That’s certainly true; the city takes great pride in its aviation legacy. But Dayton is also rich in manufacturing and transportation history. Dr Charles F. Kettering called Dayton home, working first at National Cash Register (NCR) and later founding the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco). Dayton was a “GM town”, with not only Delco but the Moraine Assembly Plant that cranked out thousands of vehicles, most recently the GMC Envoy and Chevrolet Trailblazer, before closing in 2008. But what I enjoy and admire most about the city is its commitment to a unique form of public transportation mostly written off by other metropolitan areas – the trackless trolley or trolley bus.  Here’s a short history…

Like many other cities in the decade of the 1930’s, Dayton was looking to replace its urban streetcars – it received an extra push when a large fire broke out in one of the city’s maintenance barns, destroying a good percentage of the streetcar fleet.  Rather than replace these with gas or diesel engined buses, it decided to keep its overhead catenary infrastructure and ordered twelve trolley coaches from the JG Brill company in 1933.

Brill T30

Brill, at the time the largest US manufacturer of streetcars and interurbans, introduced a trolley bus in 1931; the T30 (30 pax) and T40 (40 pax). Dayton’s order was composed of both models.

Pullman-Standard ETB

Marmon-Herrington TC48

More Brills were ordered and they served well up to and during the busy war years, but with the postwar expansion of the city, Dayton looked to broaden its fleet. They did so with orders from the Pullman Company for their Pullman-Standard ETB coach, and from Marmon-Herrington (MH), for their TC44 and TC48 models.  The Pullman seated 40 passengers, the MH’s 44 and 48 respectively.

Ex-Little Rock Brill

In the 1950’s and early 60’s, many cities were converting their trolley bus lines to diesel, and Dayton was able to purchase some well-cared for second-hand units. Between 1956 and 1965, they acquired 21 Brills from Little Rock and Indianapolis; and 75 Marmon-Herringtons from Little Rock, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Kansas City.

A tradition was started in 1965 when a MH TC48 was repainted in bright red and christened the “Winter Trolley” and used on downtown routes in December. A large chair was installed in the back and volunteer RTA employees took turns portraying Santa – it was a big hit with the kids. Its success spawned other seasonal buses for Spring, Summer and Fall.

The Brills and Pullmans were retired in the 1960s and early 70’s and by mid-decade, the fleet was mostly Marmon-Herrington, all of which were more than 20 years old. Looking at replacement options, Dayton settled on the Canadian Flyer E800 coach, very similar to the AM General diesel bus then being sold (AM General had a joint venture with Flyer). Sixty-four were purchased and delivered in 1977, and were Dayton’s first trolleys with air conditioning.

The Fleet remained all Flyer until 1996 when Dayton purchased two second-hand GM “New Look” trolleys that had been in service with Edmonton Transit.

The latter part of the 1990’s again necessitated fleet-wide replacement with the Flyers then 20 years old. Few of the existing bus manufacturers were willing to convert their production lines for such a small trolley bus order, however, a small start-up company named Electric Transit Inc. offered a version of the Czech Skoda 14Tr trolley bus then in use in Europe. These buses were somewhat unique in that they were 37 feet long, rather than the standard 40 feet, and had their rear door aft of the rear axle.

Dayton ordered fifty-seven in 1994, which were delivered in 1996-98, but unfortunately the 14Tr’s were plagued with problems; electrical gremlins, cracked frames, and persistent rust. Fixing all this was exacerbated when ETI went out of business in 2004 – kudos to the RTA mechanics who kept them running.  Dayton decided to look for replacements after just 15 years of service.

The RTA decided to go with a more experienced manufacturer for their next trolley and purchased four Kiepe Electric (formerly Vossloh Kiepe) 40 foot Nex Gen trolley buses for testing and evaluation. Kiepe is a German electronics company with a long history in transportation. Their Nex Gen bus is a Gillig Low Floor BRT coach fitted with Keipe traction motors and controls. Two of these models also had a diesel-electric hybrid power train for off-wire operation, while the other two had lithium-oxide batteries. Both models have a 15-20 mile range when off-wire.

Dayton tested these models for a full 3 years in hopes of identifying any problems – none were noted and in October 2017, an order was placed for 26 lithium battery models with plans for 15 more. Delivery is scheduled to start in early 2019.

For those looking to view some of Dayton’s trolley bus history in-person, a restored MH TC48 (No. 515) is on display at Carillion Park in Dayton – a beautiful location chock full of unique historical displays.  If you’re in the area, I’d recommend a stop by.

Currently there are only six metropolitan areas in North America that still operate trackless trolleys (Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and Dayton). It will be interesting to see if this number decreases as pure battery-electric powered buses, with advances in range and faster recharging, gain prominence in urban transit fleets.