French steam bus

A steam bus is a bus powered by a steam engine. Early steam-powered vehicles designed for carrying passengers were more usually known as steam carriages, although this term was sometimes used to describe other early experimental vehicles too.


Main article: History of steam road vehicles

Amédée Bollée's L'Obéissante (1875)


Regular intercity bus services by steam-powered buses were pioneered in England in the 1830s by Walter Hancock and by associates of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney among others, running reliable services over road conditions which were too hazardous for horse-drawn transportation. Steam carriages were much less likely to overturn, and did not "run away with" the customer as horses sometimes did. They travelled faster than horse-drawn carriages (24 mph over four miles and an average of 12 mph over longer distances). They could run at a half to a third of the cost of horse-drawn carriages. Their brakes did not lock and drag like horse-drawn transport (a phenomenon that increased damage to roads). According to engineers, steam carriages caused one-third the damage to the road surface as that caused by the action of horses' feet. Indeed, the wide tires of the steam carriages (designed for better traction) caused virtually no damage to the streets, whereas the narrow wheels of the horse-drawn carriages (designed to reduce the effort required of horses) tended to cause rutting.[1]

However, the heavy road tolls imposed by the Turnpike Acts discouraged steam road vehicles and left the way clear for the horse bus companies, and from 1861 onwards, harsh legislation virtually eliminated mechanically-propelled vehicles altogether from the roads of Great Britain for 30 years, the Locomotive Act of that year imposing restrictive speed limits on "road locomotives" of 5 mph in towns and cities, and 10 mph in the country.[2]

In 1865 the Locomotives Act of that year (the famous Red Flag Act) further reduced the speed limits to 4 mph in the country and just 2 mph in towns and cities, additionally requiring a man bearing a red flag to precede every vehicle. At the same time, the act gave local authorities the power to specify the hours during which any such vehicle might use the roads. The sole exceptions were street trams which from 1879 onwards were authorised under licence from the Board of Trade.

In 1881, the engineer John Inshaw built a steam carriage for use in Aston, Birmingham, UK. Capable of carrying ten people at speeds of up to 12mph, Inshaw discontinued his experiments due to the legislation then in force.[3]


The Red Flag Act was repealed in 1896, and experimental steam buses were again operated in various places in England. In 1909 the engineer Thomas Clarkson (1864 - 1933) started the National Steam Car Company to run steam buses in London. Four chassis were imported by the New South Wales Railways[4]. The bodies were constructed in Sydney and the vehicles placed in service of the streets of that city. By 1914 the company had 184 steam buses in London, but they had all been withdrawn by 1919.[5]


Steam power for road transportation saw a modest revival in the 1920s. It was economical to use, with prices of fuel oil (such as kerosene) being about one-third that of gasoline, with comparable fuel consumption to contemporary gasoline-engined vehicles. Additionally, startup times vis-a-vis gasoline-powered vehicles and safety issues from vaporized fuel had been solved, with steam cars such as the Doble requiring a mere 40 seconds to start from cold.

The American company Brooks Steam Motors of Buffalo produced steam city buses.

Modern commercial operationsEdit

A steam bus, Elizabeth operates a regular tourist service in the English seaside town of Whitby. To operate this fare paying passenger service the related traffic laws had to be specially changed, as it was designed for 'normal engined vehicles. The 'bus' is actually a converted sentinel steam waggon.

There are several other steam buses in the UK but they do not operate scheduled passenger services. Foden also built steam buses with one being used for the Foden Works Band a noted Brass Band.

See alsoEdit

References Edit

  1. Benson, Bruce L.. "The Rise and Fall of Non-Government Roads in the United Kingdom", Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship and the Future of Roads, 263–264. 
  2. E.g., Locomotives Act, 1861 Pratt's Law of Highways Edition 10, Shaw & Sons (1865) p. 388
  3. Hogan, Jill. "The Inshaw Steam Carriage". Aston Brook through Aston Manor. Retrieved on 17 September 2010.
  4. Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, March, 1960 pp41-43
  5. Morris, C. (2007) Southern National Omnibus Company Ian Allan ISBN 978 07110 3173 9, Chapter 1

External linksEdit

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