Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Bus Intrudes into the World of Trams

It was not that the bus was not available for use by 1913 in Port Elizabeth, but probably that the Tramways were myopically fixated on the tram as the primary mode of transport. The buses that they did possess, were instead used for excursions and not as an extension of their tram business. 

This was about to change. Given the buses flexibility regarding routes, they gave the Tramways a run for their money. Then the inevitable occurred. The Tramways adopted the motto, “If we cannot beat, join them.” 

Main picture: Buses and trams co-existed for numerous years

The Tramways first foray into the bus business was clearly an attempt to protect their existing interests and investment. In 1924 they ordered a fleet of six buses – four Clydesdale 25 seaters and two Reo 21 seaters. Just in time for the summer rush to Humewood, during November of that year, they joined the fray on this route. They were so successful, that they not only displaced their competition, the pirate buses, but completely vanquished them. It was a masterful strategic stroke by the PE Tramways Company as this was their competitors most profitable route. In fact, the main competitor took the decision to relocate his business to East London due to the perceived easier pickings. Sporadic competition did persist but mostly at weekends when the buses were available free from other commitments. Another focal point of these competitors remained the beachfront.

Was it a racing certainty?

For what had been a racing certainty – pun intended – the extension line to the Fairview Racecourse had not been a resounding success. It had been built with two motives in mind. Apart from conveying the punters to the racecourse, it would allow the expansion of the system westwards as the newer suburbs were developed. On both counts would this service fail. As regards the punters, it was in all likelihood unprofitable as the line was only used on race days whereas the expansion westward was a longer-term project. These factors compelled the Tramways to discontinue this service in July 1925.

As if to underscore the threat that the advent of the pirate buses posed to the Tramways, they elected to fight back. To this end, they duplicated two sections of track – Cape Road & South End / Humewood. This enabled trams to operate faster and with greater flexibility.

A tram wending its way down Cape Road

Other tribulations

Whereas the hills had been the Achilles’ heel of the horse drawn trams, the hills could also exact revenge on the electric trams on occasion. Two such unfortunate accidents on Russell Road would highlight these dangers. The first involved a freight trailer becoming detached from the tram towing it whereas the second incident arose on a single-deck tram. It lost control at almost the same spot as the freight trailer. It left the rails at the foot of Russell Road, almost destroying a building in the ensuing collision. Fortunately, no lives were lost on either occasion.

Pirate bus bound for Lake View – Kensington – was a 22 seater. Blinds rolled down in wet weather

By all accounts, the various measures adopted by the Tramways had been reasonably successful. In 1925, the trams actually carried 11% more passengers whereas in 1926, the improvement was a stellar 22%. Offsetting that was the additional costs of extra staff and running costs. Costs were further aggravated by increased wages and huge improvements in working conditions. These included a six-day working week, seven days annual leave and two paid public holidays per annum. Far from being the only cost pressures, the cost of track maintenance had skyrocketed as the competing buses preferred the tramway reserve rather than the actual road.

During 1927, the company buses started to run to Mill Park and North End but throwing a spanner into the works, was the realisation that their chassis were too light and hence unsuitable as they were costly to maintain. In a deal with the Municipality, an arrangement was concluded whereby the Council would augment the company’s own power supply to the trams during peak periods.

The ‘Repulse’ was a pirate bus. When used on excursions, the canvas rood was removed

Warfare or fare war

As they say, “All is fair in love and war.” Taking that adage to heart, Tramways went for the jugular. After reducing the fare by a quarter from 4d to 3d, they went a step further and introduced concession books at 2½ d. This was guaranteed to hit the pirates where they least wanted it to: their profitability. Early in 1928, two Leyland Lion single-decker buses, the first real buses in PE, were placed in service. The additional passenger traffic generated by the reduced fares more than offset, the loss due in the tariff decrease.

American Clydesdale placed into service in 1924 to fight the pirate bus war

The tram fleet was also not neglected as two tram cars were completely reconstructed as well as an experimental bogie single-decker being built using the motors and trucks of an old double-decker. As it proved to be a great success, a second unit was commenced.

Again it was a case of “you win some and you lose some.” In 1928, the South African Railways abandoned their branch line to Walmer and instead provided a bus service utilising five Thorneycroft buses. This caused the competing bus service to relocate from Walmer to Cape Town. As if that was not enough, Tramways faced competition from SAR’s Thorneycroft buses as they passed through South End en route to Walmer.

Free for all

Much like the current black taxis which wilfully and openly flout all regulations regarding safety, routes or speed, the pirate buses in the 1920s also disregarded all municipal regulations quite openly. During 1929, some 56 pirate buses were in operations, conveying an estimated five thousand passengers daily, particularly from the northern side of town.

The dawn of the thirties would hopefully bring some semblance of order in the industry. This would be in terms of the Motor Carrier Transportation Act. 1931 might have been an auspicious year for Tramways but it was definitely not for Port Elizabeth as it was struck by a severe recession affecting the motor and wool trades particularly hard. In line with their sanguine outlook, a further two large bogie single-decker trams were built. Simultaneously an order for six Albion bus chassis were placed to replace the initial Reos and Clydesdales, which had by then entered their final straight. 1931 was also a propitious year in that it was the 50th anniversary of horse drawn trams in Port Elizabeth. The growth in passenger numbers was stunning – from 626 000 in 1881 to 11.8 million – in 1931 reflecting the growth in the town and concomitantly, the Tramways company which now owned 42 trams and ten buses.

Albions being 'bodied' at the Tramsheds in 1930
Albions being ‘bodied’ at the Tramsheds in 1930

The legal mechanism to control unbridled competition was the establishment of the Local Road Transportation Board. This Board’s activities as well as and the pressure from the world-view depression of the early 1930s, compelled many pirate bus owners to exit the industry. In scurrying for the exits, many owners offered their fleets to the PE Tramways Company. Instead Tramways adopted a cautious approach and rather rashly accepting their offers, they adopt a bid their time approach.

The new Albion fleet was already making serious inroads into the pirate operators’ market. The final death knell of the private buses was to reduce fares to 2d on the Humewood and North End in December. A veritable stampede of bus operators willing to sell ensued. Tramways was inundated. Assurances were given by the Transportation Board that no further certificates would be issued for white services if the Company bought out the opposition, which it did in May 1932, when 20 of the 23 buses certified for white passengers were transferred for £7 210. All but 6 were scrapped as they were worthless.

A Vulcan 20-seater bus loads passengers at Market Square

At this juncture, the company was still beholden to their trams as the prime people mover with the buses playing second fiddle in outlying areas. This view was predicated upon the fact that trams were able to move large numbers of passengers. The closing months of 1932 saw the disappearance of the “Black Maria” tram – a special trailer that had run daily since the 1880s to and from the North End jail.

With the absorption of the pirate fleets, the Company once again had a monopoly of the services for whites. As such, it could now turn its attention to the developing areas such as Korsten. In order to service these areas, it was keen to extend the line as far as Berry’s Corner. At the same time, they were seriously considering duplicating the South End line in order to provide a more efficient service. Despite the need to extend to Berry’s Corner, the directors were reluctant to do so until the issue of competition in this area could be resolved.

The scene at the foot of Russell Road when a runaway tram collided with the Masonic Hotel

On a more practical level, the increasing size of the company’s fleet had given rise to a shortage of depot space at the Baaken’s Bridge depot. In the interim, temporary premises were leased until such time as the Company acquired the old candle factory at the foot of Brickmakerskloof. This building was converted into a bus depot and was opened by the Mayor in March 1934.

1934 saw the demise the final operator of buses for whites, M.J. Beneke. In terms of an agreement, the Company withdrew its service to Kensington and as a quid pro quo, Beneke would no longer convey intermediate passengers along the road. During October 1934, the Company commenced a service to a recently opened township of Forest Hill. As various old buses were past their prime, an extra six Albion buses were acquired, all with Gardner diesel engines.

One of the 58-seat singledeckers built by the Tramway Company

The Company attempted to add another string to its bow by offering an excursion tour service to the surrounding countryside. With implacable opposition by SA Railways, this idea was abandoned. The company was compelled to restrict themselves to tours to Seaview and Schoenmakerskop as well as “Round the City” tour which also included the recently constructed harbour.

The first batch of Albions posing outside the Town Hall

Labour relations had once again reached a nadir culminating in a six-day strike in January 1936. A new wage agreement was negotiated with the Tramway and Bus Workers Union in terms of which a minimum starting wage of 1/7d per hour was settled upon.


Port Elizabeth TramwaysA Short History of Port Elizabeth’s Road Passenger Transport Services by Graham Shield (1979, E.H. Walton & Co, Port Elizabeth)

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.