Trolleybuses in Luzern

Right in front of my hotel in Luzern (aka Lucerne) was a bus stop where every five minutes (during peak hours) a 24-meter double-articulated electric trolleybus glided in silently and stopped to discharge and pick up passengers.

Since I was there during a heat wave which made cycling unattractive, and since I had a transit pass from my hotel which allowed unlimited travel within the city for the duration of my stay, I took the trolleybuses whenever I wanted to go to the theater, the railway station, the lakefront promenade or wherever.

For those who are not familiar with trolleybuses, I should point out that they have separate connections to two overhead wires, so as to complete the electrical circuit. Of course, the two wires must not be allowed to touch each other, as that would cause a short circuit.

Trams, on the other hand, need only one overhead wire because they are grounded by the metal tracks that they run on.

Trolley poles at the back of a trolleybus in Luzern

Trolleybuses are by no means a recent technology. I was surprised to learn that the first trolleybus was tried out for several weeks (by the Siemens company in Germany) in 1882. Luzern inaugurated its first trolleybus line in 1941.

My first experience with trolleybuses was when I moved to Bern in 1961. What I remember about them is that they had an unfortunate tendency to lose the connection between the trolley poles and the overhead wires, especially at a place where they had to make a sharp turn after coming down off of a hill. When this happened, the vehicle came to a halt, and the driver had to get out, go around to the back and fiddle with the pole rope, to coax the ‘contact shoes’ at the end of the poles back into contact with the overhead wires.

Now, six decades later, this is seldom a problem, since several mechanisms have been invented to establish and maintain the contacts. Also, most modern trolleybuses now have batteries that enable them to travel for short distances without an electrical connection.

A double-articulated trolleybus in Luzern

Currently, twelve cities in Switzerland use trolleybuses as components of their urban transport systems. I haven’t been to all twelve, but of the ones I have visited, Luzern is the only one that uses trolleybuses for all of its major transit lines, those that are the busiest and most frequently served.
The other cities, like Zürich, Geneva and Bern, rely on tramways (with metal tracks) for their major lines. They use trolleybuses mainly for supporting lines that have to go up and down hills, since the rubber tires get better traction on slopes than metal wheels against metal rails. (Basel, which has hardly any hills, phased out its last trolleybus line in 2008.)

My photos and text in this post are from 2022.

See more posts on Luzern, Switzerland.
See more posts on urban transport.

13 thoughts on “Trolleybuses in Luzern”

  1. We had plain old city buses but they were great. They were phased out some time in the 1960s when everyone started driving. We didn’t have a car so I loved the buses.

  2. We had trolley buses in the town – now a city – where I grew up (Derby, England) so rides on them were commonplace in my childhood. Like others I also remember the poles becoming disconnected and the driver or conductor using a “fishing pole” to reattach before we could proceed. Also, there was a schoolboy prank whereby someone would steal your sports shoes, tie the laces together, and then throw them up to hang on to the cable. You made sure you never let your shoes or plimsolls out of your sight! I think there was a bit of outpouring of grief when the trolley buses were scrapped and replaced with diesel buses.

  3. Having grown up in San Francisco, it was a common sight to see MUNI trolleybus drivers pull over and put on thick gloves before putting the poles back onto the wires. I prefer riding trolleybuses over motorcoach buses because they’re quieter and since their drivers can’t speed, it feels safer, too!

  4. Yes I saw that too. My memory of it was that the conductor would get out and take a long pole to put the pole back in contact with the electric line – this sometimes (from my memory) happened when the trackless trolleys went around the circle at the water tower to go in the opposite direction. But I could be wrong. We moved in 1950 and then we just had regular trolleys and buses

    1. Thanks for the link with the interesting history of urban transit in Baltimore. Among other things, I learned that with the “trackless trolleys” the same thing sometimes happened in Baltimore as I saw in Bern in the 1960s:
      “Occasionally these poles would slip out of overhead lines and the car would come to a stop. Often this would happen when the trolley rounded a curve too fast.”

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