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Infrastructure Transit Travels

Why the future of transit might be found in Dayton, Ohio

Dayton, Ohio is probably best known as the hometown of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the two bicycle mechanics who made the first successful controlled heavier-than-air flight. The city has remained a centre of the aviation industry. The US Air Force (and its predecessors) have operated a major base in Dayton for over a century, which includes an impressive museum of military aviation history.

But among transit buffs, Dayton is notable for another reason. It is one of only a handful of cities in North America that continues to operate and maintain an electric trolley bus system. The Greater Dayton RTA is also the smallest transit system to have operated trolleys since the mid 1970s.

Though there were early adopters of “trackless trolleys” in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the technology was particularly popular between the late 1930s and early 1950s. For street railway operators burdened with ageing streetcars and worn out infrastructure, electric trolleys offered several advantages. They could make continued use of electric substations, poles, and overhead wires, without the need for maintaining tracks and rights-of-way. Trolley buses were quiet and smooth-running, unlike gasoline and early diesel buses, and had larger capacities. They were cheap to operate and easy to maintain, and were especially adept at climbing steep grades.

TTC trolley bus on Ossington Avenue in the 1950s. The Ossington trolley was established as part of a major post-war route restructuring.

Most of the big cities in Canada and the US continued operating streetcars into at least the 1950s, as newer PCC streetcars helped keep those fleets going. But trolley buses were ideal for smaller and midsized cities that still had robust transit demand that buses could not yet meet. Even cities that retained streetcars into the 1950s — like Toronto — used trolley buses to replace marginal streetcar lines and allow for major route restructurings.

In Canada, fourteen cities established trolley bus fleets between 1936 and 1951. In Halifax, the Nova Scotia Light and Power Company replaced its decrepit streetcar system and its feeder bus network with an all-electric fleet in 1949; at the system’s peak, there was even a trolley route across the Macdonald Bridge to Dartmouth. Cities as small as Cornwall and Port Arthur/Fort William (now Thunder Bay) even replaced their streetcars with trolley buses.

By the 1970s, the coach bodies purchased 30 years earlier were showing their age, and many agencies had decided to simplify their fleets and go with modern diesel buses, which had improved in size, power, and capacity since the 1940s. In Canada, only Toronto, Hamilton, Edmonton, and Vancouver decided to renew their fleets, while only five cities in the United States (Boston, Dayton, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle) kept their electric trolley systems. Since then, Hamilton, Toronto, Edmonton — and most recently, Boston — gave up when the latest generation of trolleys were due for replacement.

But of all places, the small, deindustrialized city of Dayton took a very different direction. In 2020, the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (GDRTA) received the last of its 45 new Kiepe/Gillig Next Generation trolley buses, equipped with large, powerful battery packs and computer systems that allow for long-distance, full speed off-wire capability. (The previous generation of trolleys, like what Translink in Vancouver currently operates, allow only for limited, low-speed off-wire operation).

The new NexGen trolley on Third Street on Dayton’s West Side
A trolley on Route 4 running with its poles down. I captured this photo just after getting off the bus on September 16, 2022.

The extended off-wire capability has allowed the GDRTA to extend two of its trolley bus routes further into the suburbs without extending wire. Route 7 was extended 5 kilometres northwest, while Route 1 was extended 6 kilometres east to Wright State University. Though the corridors were already served by longer-distance diesel bus routes, it provided additional service to some of Dayton’s major suburban trip generators.

North Main Street at Elm Hill Drive, where the Route 7 trolley wire ends (note the “poles down” sign), but trolley buses can continue another 5 kilometres onward.

Unfortunately, despite the new fleet and plenty of wire to run it, the GDRTA has only been operating its trolley buses on a single route in the last few months, despite four routes being fully capable of electric service. When I visited Dayton on September 15, not a single trolley was out. Though I did go visit the US Air Force Museum and the Wright Brothers National Historic Site (where one of the brothers’ bicycle shops were preserved on site; the family home and another of their shops were moved to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village), I was really disappointed. But having a car, and a hotel reservation less than an hour away, I went back the next morning to see these new vehicles in action and take a ride.

A line up of diesel buses, including the trolley-capable Route 7, in Downtown Dayton, just south of the main bus terminal on September 15, 2022. Note the trolley wire, completely unused.

Happily, Route 4 was operating with trolleys, though on a Saturday schedule, imposed by GDRTA because of an ongoing driver shortage that has plagued transit systems across North America. During the daytime, three buses offer 30 minute service on the route. Between Downtown Dayton and the West Side, my first ride that morning was interesting as the bus was operating with its poles down for some reason. But riding the bus, I couldn’t tell: it was a smooth, quiet, and quick jaunt. I took two more trips on Route 4 to the east end, to get the most out of my visit.

A NextGen trolley outbound on Wayne Avenue at East 5th Street, September 16

Despite my disappointment with the GDRTA’s utilization of its fleet, I came away still confident about the technology’s future. Though many transit systems are re-electrifying their bus fleets, they have been purchasing battery-electric fleets that do not have any in-motion charging, unlike Dayton’s advanced trolleys. Some agencies, like the TTC, have battery buses that are charged only at the garages. Other cities, like Brampton, Winnipeg, and Montreal have en-route charging stations at terminal points as well as garage charging points. But bus batteries are extremely heavy, and they have not yet gone through a complete life cycle yet in the harsh Canadian climate.

Brampton Transit electric bus charging at Mount Pleasant Village

The TTC in particular is suited to restoring its trolley network using modern on-wire charging buses like those used in Dayton, as it has much of the infrastructure already in place, including substations (that feed the subway and streetcar network) and existing overhead wire systems. With long-distance off-wire capability, there is no need for complex wire junctions and short-turn loops, unlike older trolleybus networks. Busy, straight routes such as Dufferin and Bathurst would be ideal.

Though Dayton isn’t using its new fleet of electric buses to its potential, it does show the way to renewing sustainable electric transit services for cities like Toronto.

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