Trolleybus blues, NZ 1972

How many people do you know who have been hurled into the air by a snapping trolleybus cable? And lived to tell the tale.

I can’t find anyone, apart from me; a few injuries and deaths caused by other trolley bus accidents, but nobody who managed to escape death-by-trolleybus without the presence of a trolleybus. Before I tell the tale, if, like my grandchildren you don’t know what a trolleybus is, or was, it’s like a tram without tramlines, powered by overhead electric cables. Trolleybuses replaced trams in various cities, including London, where I was dragged up, and, as it happens, in New Zealand, after the war. Let me set the scene.

1972, downtown Dunedin, New Zealand.

At the time, I was working as a producer-director at NZBC DNTV-2, and on this particular day I was due to direct the local weekly gardening programme “Green Fingers” at the TV studio in the Octagon, a bus ride from where we lived in St. Clair. I needed to call in at a local shop for something or other so I planned to take a bus that went into town by a route I didn’t often take, probably that taken by the old No.10 trolleybuses.

photo courtesy the word bus. Around that time, some cities in New Zealand, having replaced trams with trolleybuses, were replacing them with motor buses on certain routes.

Allegedly, compared to buses, they were difficult to re-route, unable to overtake each other, took up more road space, required an unsightly jumble of overhead cables, cost more to build and required special skills such as dealing with the not uncommon problem of the overhead pickup poles becoming detached.

The change from trolleybuses to plain buses involved the demolition of the overhead cable network, and this was the day when fate (or actually incompetence) ordained that I was about to cross a main road at the very moment that this process went disastrously wrong. I was aware that at some distance down the road there was a maintenance truck with a tower on the back, on which men were working on decommissioning the cables. I had seen this elsewhere in the city as the process progressed, and I understood the principle involved.

The steel cables, held in place by roadside posts, were under enormous tension. The idea was [1] to reverse the truck and park up close to the nearest roadside post, clamp the cables to the truck’s tower, then [2] reverse carefully toward the post so as to slacken the cables between the clamp and the post, to allow them to be safely cut.  Once  [3] the cables were cut the truck would [4] drive slowly forward to reduce the tension between it and the next post, and allow the cables to safely drop on to the road. That’s the theory anyway.

With hindsight, I presume that the road was closed to traffic while this work was going on, but apparently not to pedestrians. This was my undoing, as someone must have cut one of the cables under tension, just as I approached the kerb.

I heard the metallic swishing sound before I saw the unleashed cable snaking toward me, but before I could react it just grabbed me around the neck, lifted me in the air and then dumped me in the road.

I can recall vividly the awful sense of inevitability and how it felt when the cable struck, but what still worries me is what happened next. I cannot remember how I got there, but my next recollection is of screaming at the maintenance crew, at their truck, which must have been at least 50 metres away. I heard a stream of swear words coming out of my mouth as if it came from someone else; it was like one of those dreams where nobody can hear you no matter how loud you shout. I think now it would have been smarter to just lie in the road and play dead, as my ranting just seemed to embarrass the maintenance men.

I’m not sure either how I ended up in a nearby doctors’ surgery, but I think some kind person may have helped me there. The reaction of the medical staff there was almost as offhand as those out in the street – embarrassment and irritation rather than any marked desire to help me. I was now acutely aware that though my head seemed still attached, my neck had swollen up and it hurt a lot. Not to mention some bruises and abrasions from the fall.

I was eventually seen by a grumpy doctor, then left to my own devices. I even had to ask to use their phone to call home and the TV studio. The request was granted, but with bad grace. I got the impression that nobody believed my story. I had no witnesses, and by the time I managed to make the phone calls, the trolleybus maintenance truck was nowhere to be seen, nor the cable. Kafka would have been proud.

My immediate concerns were not to alarm my wife and to inform the TV station, where genial presenter Charles Joye and the studio crew would be waiting for me. I think my wife took the news calmly, but it was a different matter back at the station. I left a message with the switchboard emphasising that I was not at death’s door, but my chief producer apparently panicked, and I heard later that the story got blown up along the lines that I had been run over and was dangerously ill in hospital. That’s TV folk for you – too many soap operas. But at least this episode didn’t end in the morgue.

I can’t remember how I got home, but once there I began popping pain killers and wondering if I would ever again be able to talk properly. When the swelling subsided, I returned to work, where it seemed again that nobody there believed the story either, preferring their own imagined versions. A bit of an anti-climax I suppose.

There was no police investigation, no newspaper story, no DNTV2 news item, no compensation. It was as if it had never happened, and I was too green to do anything about it.

Now, I have to say that we never really liked Dunedin much, and this incident didn’t help. Having lived in the balmy sub-tropical north, we didn’t want to go this far South, where winter temperatures would routinely fall well below zero and central heating was unheard of, but I had little choice, having been posted there by the NZBC, at the behest of the very same chief producer who had me down for serious injuries and hospitalisation.

Over the previous five years in New Zealand, we had met with nothing but kindness, Kiwi common sense and good humour, so, in fairness, this was an unexpected exception.

Not long afterwards, we decided to return to the UK for a while but as it turned out we never went back to Dunedin, home to the most southerly trolleybus network in the world, now remembered only by its senior citizens. And me.

Related links:

Otago Heritage Bus Society


Dunedin Trolleybus Routes

Photo courtesy The last trolleybus in Dunedin was taken out of service in 1982



2 thoughts on “Trolleybus blues, NZ 1972

  1. Pingback: New Zealand Days: Part 4 – Wellington | Peter Dewrance

  2. Pingback: New Zealand Days: Part 5 – Dunedin | Peter Dewrance

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