Cheap Soviet oil drove trolleybuses out of Prague. Ecology returns them, says the public transport historian
The Prague transport company sent its first trolleybus to the street in a few decades. Since mid-August, it has been running on line 58 between Palmovka Letňany every Saturday afternoon and at every intervals. According to public transport historian Pavel Fojtík, a more environmentally friendly approach to transport also contributes to the return of trolleybuses. In the middle of the 20th century, buses were pushed out of the streets of Prague due to cheap oil from the USSR.
When did the first trolleybus start running on the streets of Prague?
The trolleybus was the first in Prague and at the same time in Czechoslovakia to be introduced in left-hand traffic on August 28, 1936. The line led from the Střešovice depot through Ořechovka, Bořislavka and Hanspaulka to the U svatého Matěje stop. There was a bus line between Bořislavka and St. Matthew at that time, but it did not run through Ořechovka.
Why did Prague choose this route then?
Because it was easily replaced by buses. If something went wrong and there was an outage, it wouldn’t be such a mess. The transport company also wanted to try trolleybuses in hilly terrain, because in some places in Střešovice near Starodejvická or in the direction of Hanspaulka, the streets are rising very high. The usual tram transport would therefore be very difficult to get there.
What trolleybus track should the vehicle start?
The electrical companies of the capital city of Prague had no experience with their production, which is why three trolleybus cars were rented from the beginning. Each was made by someone else. One was supplied by Škoda, the other by ČKD, of which Pragovka was a part, and the last was acquired by the company from Tatrovka. Coincidentally, the Prague has been preserved to this day and the car has been repaired in the workshops of our company for several years. The oldest Czech trolleybus will soon be able to operate again.
What reaction did the first trolleybus provoke in Prague at that time?
Trolleybuses with great glory were especially welcomed by the inhabitants of Hanspaulka. They used to have a bus, but with trolleybuses they suddenly got the feeling that part of them was part of the big city. The first trolleybuses therefore welcomed hundreds of people, they also liked them because they were quiet. Even then, they already realized that the new means of transport did not smell like buses.
How did the Prague trolleybus lines continue to develop?
At the beginning of the Second World War, a second trolleybus line was built in Prague, which led from Anděl to Jinonice to the then Walter’s factory. However, it was no longer a test line, it was intended for regular transport of workers to work.
After the war – especially in the 1940s and in the first half of the 1950s – a trolleybus network began to be built instead of isolated lines. Trolleybuses were important stimuli, for example, on the routes to Pankrác, Čakovice, Vysočany, Vinohrady, Žižkov, Strašnice or the nascent Vršovice housing estate. The track was even introduced to Chuchle. But then suddenly construction from day to day ended.
Restrictions on trolleybuses are eligible for the Cold War. They would not be able to evacuate people
Why did Prague suddenly turn its back on trolleybuses in the 1950s?
In the post-war period, our national economy was not able to ensure the production of all the equipment that was necessary for trolleybus transport. The Prague transport company therefore preferred to power the tram network. Even then, there were probably other reasons.
In the 1960s, the competences of cities began to be spoken to by superior state bodies, which are negotiating the so-called minimization of modes of transport. For this reason, buses are given priority, no one was interested in ecology at the time.
Prague has also begun to develop housing estates on the outskirts of the city. And building trolleybuses at a time when road construction was generally in place proved uneconomical. In addition, a complete reconstruction of the transport system was being prepared at that time, including the subsequent introduction of the metro. The need for operability, which was not provided by trolleybuses, also played a big role.
Didn’t the then political situation affect the operation of trolleybuses?
During the Cold War, there were fears of an attack and it was necessary to think about the possible evacuation of the population. However, unlike the bus, the trolleybus will take passengers to the outskirts of the city at most. It was also crucial that we took cheap oil from the Soviet Union at the time, and bus transport in Prague was therefore cheaper.
You said the change took place from day to day. What exactly did you mean by that?
In the 1950s, several new lines were built in Prague, for example from Chuchle in the direction of Lahovice and Zbraslav or in Žižkov. The oldest line was to be extended through Dejvice and Bubeneč and through the Letna tunnel to náměstí Republiky. But the tracks were not finished.
And what did the trolleybus network of European balances look like then?
In many western cities, many trolleybus lines have also taken over. For example, in the then Soviet Union, however, trolleybus transport was always relatively developed and they did not consider disruption there at that time. But the need for renewal also played a role. Power and cable network, overhead lines, vehicles, money must be invested in all this from time to time. And in the West and in our country, companies did not want to do it, there was more fashion for buses.
Trolleybuses left behind shadows on the houses. They show the remains of an overhead line
What monuments and artifacts can we find on trolleybuses in Prague to this day?
It’s a little bit. For a long time, poles from the trolleybus line stood in various places in Prague. But all were removed, with one exception. In Šárecká Street, in front of Matěj in Dejvice, they used historical columns to build a symbolic monument from them. There were two pillars left, and between them a wire sling, on which is hung a trolleybus line holder. There is a table on the column reminding that the first Prague trolleybus line led through these places in 1936-1959.
And besides the monument?
Here and there, as I call them, shadows appear on the houses. According to them, you will recognize that there was a so-called holding overhangs from the overhead contact line on them. Somewhere there are still the original ones, but we would count them on our fingers. An interesting remnant of the first trolleybus line was also the railway underpass in Dejvice. The bridge was built there especially for the trolleybus (The “Orionka Memorial Trolleybus Stop” is also built in Prague’s Vinohrady – editor’s note).
Why has route 58 from Palmovka to Letňany been renewed now?
One of the main reasons, in my opinion, is the hilly terrain. The overhead line is right at the point where Prosecká Street rises sharply. In addition, transport demand also plays a role, playing technical possibilities or close to the base. In this case, a garage in Klíč.
Photo: Pavel Hejna
Pavel Fojtík (1954) is a Czech historian specializing mainly in the history of Prague transport. From 2005 to 2019, the archive of Dopravní podnik hl. m of Prague. He is also the author or co-author of many documentaries, instructional, educational and promotional films or publications on the history of Prague transport.
Were you surprised by the renewal of the trolleybus line in Prague?
Yes, when I asked people a few years ago who have a strategy for developing urban transport at work, I always got the answer that trolleybuses in Prague are not on the agenda.
Why are trolleybuses starting to return to cities?
Clearly, ecology began to gain the upper ground in our country. I feel that the European Union’s vision of environmental sustainability also plays a role in the development of electric traction. The resumption of trolleybus traffic was preceded by a wave of electric buses. Various means of transport were tested, until finally a trolleybus with dynamic charging was switched. That is, a vehicle that can either go on the overhead contact line or on a battery that is charged on the final or on the track in the section with the overhead contact line.
In the last century, Czechoslovakia was one of the world’s great powers in the production of trolleybuses – specifically the Škoda plant in Ostrov -, why did it lose this position?
I do not have archival materials for this that I could evaluate. As far as I know, the production of trolleybuses became unprofitable after the year 2000.
Does it make sense to reintroduce the trolleybus line?
Trams, trolleybuses and, of course, the metro are means of transport that should play a key role in a city like Prague, but careful consideration must be given to where trolleybus transport is being introduced. Decades ago, they knew that it was great to have trolleybuses in the area of Strahov, Jinonice or where there is a greater climb.
Today, however, you will also find a number of opponents of trolleybuses who draw attention to buses of strict environmental standards. Their exhaust fumes are somewhere else than in the 70s or 80s. However, trolleybuses are an ecological means of transport and I wish it to develop in Prague.
Prague is testing a new Solaris | hybrid bus Video: Aktuálně.cz, Ondrej Havelka