Will LRT come to Hamilton? Not sure I’ll live to take that inaugural ride.

But what a grand day it would be. Sleek cars on rails, moving quickly, smoothly, cleanly, silently. That’s electric power for you. We’ll really be stepping into the future.

Wait a minute. This news just in. We had electric-powered transit and we tossed it aside some 20 years ago. We had trolley buses.


An old HSR trolley bus gets in line behind a new one. Hamilton's last trolley run was in 1992. (stephenrees.wordpress.com)

Forget what they looked like? No worries. Michael Taylor knew you’d want to see them some day. Thanks to him, they’re now just a click away.

Taylor is 69, a retired Ford worker. His boyhood years were spent in England, and there a popular thing to do was "loco spotting." You had a little book, and every time you saw another kind of locomotive, you checked it off.

Seven days, seven cities

Even though he worked several decades here for the very company that first got the masses off the rails and onto the highways in vehicles of their own, Taylor never lost his passion for trains. And for public transit of every kind – LRT, buses, trolleys.

Just last month, he travelled to Germany and in seven days visited seven cities with streetcar lines. He came back with 180 video clips and 650 stills.

In the Czech Republic, there are 13 trolley bus cities. Taylor has visited 12 of them.


Michael Taylor's card says Transport Enthusiast. He's not kidding. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

In April, 1950, the first trolley bus arrived in Hamilton. The conveyance "with all the latest wrinkles for speed and comfort" went on display at a huge tent at the Hamilton Industrial Fair – and then went into service on Cannon Street. It grabbed juice from the wires above via twin spring-loaded poles.

But then came the days of cheap diesel, and the trolley began to fall from favour. The electrical spider web stayed up on Cannon, but gas powered buses took over that route.

Trolleys under threat

In the ‘80s, Hamilton had 56 trolley cars. They ran on two routes, King Street and Barton Street, which carried one in five of all city transit riders. But the trolleys were under threat.

I interviewed a young Hamilton lawyer back then named Alex Pazaratz. He’s a judge now, so maybe we can consider him a wise man. He had taken up the cause of the trolley, and said this at the time: "I don’t want to be the voice of doom. But someday we’ll say, ‘Boy, did we ever do a stupid thing.’"

Long-time HSR manager Frank Cooke had been a big fan of the trolley bus. Successor Heinz Schweinbenz, not so much. He said Hamilton’s trolleys were unreliable and expensive. The last ones were put out to pasture in 1992.


This 1973 Taylor shot is from when Dundas still had a railway station – with a shuttle bus at the ready for the trip to downtown Hamilton. (Michael Taylor)

But in the spring of the previous year, Michael Taylor was on the scene with his 8 mm camcorder. And he shot video of the doomed trolley buses.

He went out onto the street and waited for one to come by. Or he hopped in his Cougar and chased it. One hand on the wheel, one on the camera.

Great acceleration

"Trolley buses out-accelerate anything on the road," Taylor says. "They don’t pollute and, when driven properly, they don’t come off the wires."

When Taylor shot that HSR trolley bus video 22 years ago, it was for a very small audience. He sent a tape off to a buddy in Britain, but that was about it.

Then along came the Web. "About five years ago I realized I could start editing all this and put it on YouTube," Taylor says.


This is a Taylor favourite, the suspension railway in Wuppertal. The German city of 350,000 has had their transit system in place since 1901. It's 13 kilometres long and carries 25 million people a year. (Michael Taylor)

And anyone could see it then. Including Joe Truman, a reader who e-mailed me from Grosse Point Woods in Michigan:

"I came across this on YouTube...not Hamilton in the ‘glory days’ I wasn't around for...but the Hamilton I knew as a kid.  A bus-fanatic filmed this...it's gold really...14 minutes of well-shot video of Barton Street and Downtown."

Take a trip

It’s called Hamilton Downtown 1991 Trolleybuses. A disclaimer – this footage is not action-packed. You will see the HSR moving through the streets of our town. Like watching paint dry, you say?

Just relax, take a little trip back. You don’t even really have to like buses. Spot what’s gone in two decades, like CKDS in its light-rock days, and BiWay and Kresge’s. But there’s the Birks Clock, out on the street, and the knights are charging.

And 20 years from now? Will people be shooting video of our new LRT for posterity?


Unlike Hamilton, Vancouver has kept right on loving the trolley bus. This is one of their articulated models. (bc.transport2000.ca)

One postscript. HSR czar Schweinbenz, who well and truly believed the day of the trolley bus was done and managed its demise here, moved onto BC Transit.

That put him in Vancouver, a city that has embraced the trolley bus since 1948. Not long ago they upgraded the trolley fleet, running 262 low-floor buses on 13 routes. There they get clean and quiet. In Hamilton, it’s diesel and din.


Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.