Emission-free electric buses may be the next generation of public transport, but, as PETER DEW reports, we've been here before.

SIX shiny electric buses, painted green, of course, have been delivered to First York, and can already be seen on the city's streets as testing and driver training takes place.

They are intended for the new Poppleton Bar Park and Ride route, and appear to be a radical, way forward. But did you know that York had battery-powered buses before - almost a century ago?

In March 1915 York Corporation Tramways Department was one of the very first operators in the country to employ them and to this day, there are still two relics of this pioneering form of transport in the City – the shelters at Clifton Green and Malton Road Corner, which were built as charging points for the buses.

A photograph of one of these early Edison Electric buses being recharged at Clifton Green appears in Keith Jenkinson’s 1984 book, “York City Buses”.

York Corporation Tramways began operating electric trams (as opposed to buses) in 1910 – a full 25 years after Blackpool became the first town in Britain to operate an electric street tramway.

The York trams ran on narrow gauge tracks – 3’6” between the rails, rather than a standard 4’8½”, perhaps because the streets were so tight, and, by 1916, trams ran to Fulford, South Bank, Tadcaster Road, Acomb, Haxby Road and Hull Road.

The York tramways were, legally, light railways – built under the authority of the 1896 Light Railways Act rather than the 1870 Tramways act, but there was little practical difference. Then, as now, tramways were expensive to build and cheaper options were sought for new developments and less busy routes.

One employed by York Corporation was to operate trolley buses and, when the solid-tyred battery buses became life expired after less than five years, the Heworth route was converted in 1920.

The first trolleybuses lasted until 1929 before they also became life-expired and were replaced by motor buses until three new trolleybuses were delivered in 1931.

Some photographs of these in service – including one of the battery buses with the early registration number DN12 - appear in Barry M Marsden’s 2006 book, “York Trams and Trolleybuses”, and the views of Pavement and Heworth make an interesting comparison with the present day – Heworth Road is described as a “country lane”

Trolleybuses required two overhead wires for their electricity supply, but trams only need one because the return electric current is carried through the rails.

Ever mindful of the need for economy, York Corporation didn't erect a second wire to enable the trolleybuses to run between the depot (first in Piccadilly, later at Fulford Cross) and the terminus at Pavement. Instead, the trolleybuses used a metal skate sliding along the tram lines to carry the return current.

It is said that they would proceed along the road with a shower of sparks trailing behind them as the skate bounced along.

Not only did the Corporation operate trams and trolleybuses; because it owned the power station in Foss Islands Road, it was also therefore able to generate the electricity to run them.

The first trolleybuses were supplied by the Railless Electric Traction Company and like the battery-powered buses were one-man operated. Locals referred to them as “The Trackless”.

The 1931 trolleybuses were manufactured by Karrier-Clough - a Huddersfield company – with bodies built by Charles Roe in Leeds, and they were operated with conductors. Coincidentally, the new battery buses to be introduced in York in 2014 are built by Optare, the successor to Roe, at their new factory in Sherburn-in-Elmet.

In the early 1930s, the Corporation applied for authorisation to build additional trolleybus routes – from Exhibition Square via Bootham to Burton Stone Lane and from St Sampson’s Square via Goodramgate and Huntington Road to Haley’s Terrace – but the worsening financial situation and the fact that the tramway was wearing out meant that these extensions didn't happen.

Instead, the Corporation went into partnership with the West Yorkshire Road Car Company and both trolleybuses and trams were replaced by buses in 1935. The Corporation’s Transport Manager, who had championed the trolleybus scheme, emigrated to South Africa to take charge of the Durban municipal undertaking, which ran a large trolleybus fleet.

York has changed in many ways since my grandfather, Joseph Sutton, drove the trams and trolleybuses around the city. Money was scarce for working families in the 1920s and 1930s, and those who could tended to walk or cycle rather than use the trams.

Life wasn’t easy for the staff either - my mother recalled walking from their home in Tang Hall to take her father’s lunch to the Beeswing tram terminus; there were no laws requiring rest breaks in those days. I can just remember the narrow double deck buses of the 1950s, running both ways along St Saviourgate before Stonebow was opened.

Change goes on, of course, and public transport in York is different again from the time when I drove the city’s buses for West Yorkshire some 35 years ago.

In 2006, I introduced low-emission buses to York’s open top City Tours, but technology moves on ever more quickly, and a new era of hybrid and battery-powered buses may be the answer to the City’s air pollution problems.

Some will argue that York should reintroduce trams to its streets, but I wrote a dissertation on the reintroduction of tramways back in the seventies. Then, as now, I concluded that trams remain a viable form of transport, in the right place; in cities such as Manchester, Sheffield and (just opened) Edinburgh.

But they are expensive – having worked on plans for both the Leeds and Nottingham schemes, I know just how expensive - and I believe York doesn't have sufficient passenger flow to make the system work here.

Which leaves us with the city's new electric buses. First will be rightly proud of them, but let us not forget the far-sighted York Corporation of a century ago. After all, it made the first move.

* Peter Dew is a former manager and Director of First York, and was subsequently the owner of Top Line Travel of York before his retirement in 2009