A couple of weeks ago, I went to what is now my favorite transit museum, the Illinois Railway Museum. Normally, you’d visit IRM to catch a ride on one of its historic trains or maybe to volunteer to keep transit history alive. But on September 24, the museum had a treat for a different kind of enthusiast. The museum’s Bus Day featured over three dozen buses spanning a century, and the coolest part is that ten of them could be ridden. I rode all of the buses, and even found some incredible history on my own bus.
I’ve been writing a bit about the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) since I first discovered it in August. That’s partly because I’m still incredibly fascinated with the place. I’ve been living in or near northeast Illinois for my entire life. Heck, I’ve been living about 25 minutes from the museum’s property for more than four years now. Yet, I never heard of this place until the summer.
Sheryl and I have visited IRM three times already, and two of those times were within the span of a single week. We’re both lifelong fans of trains. And while we both have seen maybe a locomotive or a few cars here and there at other museums, we never expected to find a place on the level of IRM. The sheer scale of the museum’s property is stunning, as is the fact that so much of the museum’s hundreds of pieces of equipment actually run.
One of the things that I loved most about visiting EAA AirVenture Oshkosh was the fact that the vintage aircraft on display were operational and had flown in. You get that same vibe at IRM as much of its equipment runs down the museum’s short mainline. It’s one thing to collect non-operational pieces of history, but it’s another to keep those pieces of history operational. I’m still blown away by the fact that volunteers keep IRM’s sometimes century-old equipment chugging along even decades after the museum acquired them. To put my wonder at IRM in other words, I’ll be looking into how I could volunteer for the museum.
This time, we didn’t come for the trains, even though that’s right in the museum’s name. Instead, we came for the museum’s impressive collection of transit bus history. According to a sign I found on the property, the Illinois Railway Museum has 37 buses, with 24 of them being electric trolleybuses and 13 being motor buses. On our first two visits to the museum, the massive pole barns storing the buses were largely inaccessible. Fitting a few dozen buses into two barns means that there’s basically no space between each bus, and no room for you to actually look at them. We couldn’t see more than maybe a few buses.
As it turns out, there’s enough interest in preserving transit bus history in the Midwest that IRM devotes a whole day to it. For the past seven years, the museum has hosted a Bus Day, where the buses are taken out of the barns and bus fans can take in history that they might not be able to find anywhere else. This year, the museum ran ten buses on a loop around its grounds ranging from vintage trolleybuses to a modern diesel transit bus from nearby Janesville, Wisconsin.
Janesville Transit System 412
Our journey started with the sight of an old friend, Janesville Transit System 412, a 1979 GM RTS-II. This bus operated with Janesville from 1979 to 2002. Then it was donated to IRM. The museum has operated this bus for 20 years more or less in the state that it was received in 2002. That makes it an awesome time capsule.
I’ve written about the Rapid Transit Series’ history a lot before, and I’ll give you a recap.
The Rapid Transit Series (RTS) is General Motors’ successor to the famed New Look transit bus. Back in 1970, the United States Urban Mass Transportation Administration launched the Transbus program to reverse declining bus ridership while advancing bus technology. GM’s entrant was the innovative Rapid Transit Experimental. This three-axle beast featured plastic body panels, a gas turbine engine, and a funky then ultra-modern interior. The GMC Truck and Coach Division eventually pulled out of the Transbus program, but it had a backup plan to develop the RTX into the buses that we know today.
Not all of the advancements were lost on the way to production. The gas turbines were left in the past, but the stainless steel unitized body built in five-foot sections stuck around. So did the plastic skin and acrylic windows.
GM built the RTS-II from 1977 to 1987, before passing the torch to Transportation Manufacturing Corporation. TMC kept things going until 1994, when Nova Bus took over. Nova produced its version of the RTS until 2002, when the bus passed to Millennium Transit Services in 2002.
Production ended for good in 2012. The RTS is General Motors’ swan song transit bus, capping a long dominating history of building popular and distinctive people movers. It also happens to be one of my favorite vehicles in the world. I even drove one 1,200 miles home from Texas.
My 2002 Nova Bus RTS-06 is an evolution of the original RTS design. The beautiful frameless windows became framed windows that opened. The driver seat became a more comfortable Recaro air seat. Out back, the slanted rear became squared off to accommodate a better air-conditioner spaced further away from the engine. The Detroit Diesel Series 71 V6 even became a Series 50 inline four. But a lot of parts remained the same. This old RTS and mine share a similar information center, a similar lack of a fuel gauge, and a similar lack of keys needed to start it.
Honestly, I like this older RTS just a little bit more. The windows give more of an airy feel to the interior. Oh, and the engine sounds fantastic.
While I was there, I decided to take some notes. Sure, my bus and this one were decades apart and built in two different factories, but they are similar enough to help me out with some silly questions.
For example, the Detroit 50 in my bus gave out a slow, but steady stream of faint white smoke from the crankcase breather. I’ve always wondered if this is normal. The RTS at the museum did it exactly like mine. I asked one of the volunteer mechanics and he told me that it’s a common thing that Detroits do.
I also asked about battery drain. When parked, my bus will eat through two fully charged batteries in maybe two weeks. He chuckled and suggested completely disconnecting the batteries if the bus will be parked for more than a week. Apparently, battery drain was a problem that existed even on these older units, and was never fixed in newer iterations. Basically, these buses are just quirky.
Chicago Transit Authority 9631
Moving on, I boarded Chicago Transit Authority 9631, a Marmon-Herrington TC49 built in 1951.
IRM has a neat story about its past:
Chicago’s trolley bus system, for the 43 years it lasted, provided vital transportation through the streets of the city. Even though it mainly served the Northwest Side with a few lines on the Near South Side, it had the largest fleet of trolley buses in the country. And even though it never came within a half mile of the Loop, it carried enough passengers that some routes needed intervals between buses of less than a minute during rush hours.
CTA’s last order of 349 trolley buses was also the largest quantity of them that had ever been bought from any builder, and no larger order has been placed since. Bus 9631 is one of those 349, and its sister 9553 is also preserved here at IRM. It was built by Marmon-Herrington in Indianapolis, Indiana, who had only produced their first trolley bus in 1946, but their product quickly outsold all other builders’ trolley buses. Marmon’s design was lightweight and strong, using the aluminum skin of the bus to stiffen the structure. Other manufacturers relied on a heavy steel frame, and moving all that extra weight consumed more electricity and cost more money to operate.
Bus 9631 was assigned to the North Ave. Garage at North and Cicero Aves. for its entire service life. When Chicago abandoned its final trolley bus routes on March 25, 1973, bus 9631 was already chosen for preservation. It ran on a final excursion on April 1, and came to IRM on July 11. Among its sister buses, 124 were sold to Guadalajara, Mexico, where they continued in service until the early 1990s.
Originally, I thought that riding an old bus wasn’t going to be much different than a modern day bus. But that was wrong. These old buses felt like riding in an old train car, but with rubber tires. It’s powered by a GE-1213J3 electric motor fed from trolley poles riding on lines above the bus. The driver told me that top speed is somewhere around 45 mph. And while that’s not much speed, remember that these were designed for slow city roads. Acceleration was actually sort of exhilarating as it took off from a stop like a car, not like the 20,340-pound bus that it is.
Milwaukee & Suburban Transport 441
One of the next buses that we boarded was Milwaukee & Suburban Transport 441, a 1948 Marmon-Herrington TC44. The story of this trolleybus is similar to 9631. IRM notes that Marmon built just one design of trolley bus, and the vehicles only varied in number of seats and door width. That previous 9631 has 49 seats, while #441 has 44 seats. The two trolley buses even have a similar motor, with a similar thrust of acceleration.
The thing that blew my mind about this bus is its condition.
The previous bus was restored, but this one? It’s original. This bus drove around Milwaukee from 1948 to 1965. Then it became a part of IRM’s collection that same year. A volunteer told me that this is what the bus looked like all of those decades ago. That was simply incredible to me, especially the fact that it still runs.
The volunteer did go on to say that the Bus Day was the last day that this bus was running before an exterior cosmetic restoration. The next time the public will see the bus, it will be all nice and shiny like 9631.
Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle 633
If I wrote about all ten of the buses that you could ride that day, this story would probably be 10,000 words-long. But believe me, each and every one of these buses are awesome, and each has a story to tell. For example, Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle 633, a 1940 Twin Coach 41GWFT, was retired from passenger service not once, but three times before it finally became a museum bus:
San Francisco’s cable cars (streetcars pulled by a constantly moving cable beneath the street) are legendary. But hilly Seattle also had a cable car system, and was the last American city to abandon their use, in 1940. Recognizing the trolley bus’s ability to climb hills easily, it was chosen as the primary mode to replace Seattle’s cable and electric street cars. They placed two orders, one to a local firm for trolley buses to a Brill design, and another for 135 vehicles from Twin Coach in Kent, Ohio. Twin supplied their streamlined GWFT model with Westinghouse electrical equipment. During WWII, Twin and Pullman-Standard built additional coaches for Seattle.
Our bus was built as number 865 in June, 1940. It was renumbered to 626 in 1963, and it served the city-owned Seattle Transit System until March, 1965. During the mid-1960s, Seattle Transit’s policy was to gradually abandon the trolley bus system, but strong public opinion against the policy, primarily for environmental and economic reasons, led to its reversal in the early-mid 1970s. When our bus was retired, it was preserved at the Oregon Electric Railway Society in Glenwood, Oregon.
The transit system, absorbed into the new Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, rebuilt what remained of the trolleybus fleet and even re-acquired four older units that had been sent to museums, including our bus. Rebuilt and renumbered 633 in 1974, it served until the entire trolley bus infrastructure was to be rebuilt during 1978. During the shutdown, a fleet of replacement trolley buses was ordered, but only a few were ready when the system re-opened in September, 1979. Our bus resumed service a third time, running in limited service until 1981. After its third retirement, it was preserved at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California, and came to IRM in 2009.
This trolley bus was restored in 1974, but it still lived a hard life, and it has the scars and imperfections to show for it. One observation that I made with this old beauty is that its electric motor sounds like a car’s wheel bearing at the very end of its life.
That made for a fun realization when I hopped aboard one of the modern trolley buses.
These buses all follow a similar basic design, and yet, builders have still found a lot of room to improve. The drivers of the older buses could be seen sawing at their unassisted wheels to make turns that the newer buses make easily. And the motors of the newer buses don’t pierce your ears with noise. It’s great to witness those improvements all in one place.
Outside of the buses that you could ride, there was a small display of privately-owned buses. A couple of GM New Look buses were driven in by a private owner and the Midwest Bus Museum. A newer in-service Gillig came in from Northern Illinois University. IRM allows private owners to display their buses at a Bus Day event. I’ll have to remember that for next time so I can bring my own RTS.
Listen to this 1976 GM New Look purr:
Inside of the bus barns were even more examples of fine bus history. This Montebello Bus Lines 17 is an example of when the Ford Motor Company built transit buses. As IRM notes, Ford’s line was called the “Ford Transit Bus.” Built in 1944, this Ford 99T features a Ford chassis, but a bus body from Union City Body Co. in Union City, Indiana. Power comes from a 239-cubic inch flathead V8 making 95 HP. The driver rows through a three-speed manual.
Just 13,700 of these were made, and IRM notes that running examples are rare. This one originally operated in Montebello, California, before coming to IRM. After its arrival, it was painted in a fictitious Chicago & West Towns Railway livery to illustrate the type of bus used by the railway back in those days.
Also in the barns were various GM New Looks, including Chicago Transit Authority 9799, a 1977 GM New Look T8H-5307A.
IRM says that this bus is the very last New Look built in GM’s Pontiac, Michigan plant. It was built in an order of 200 buses destined for Chicago. It served routes in Chicago until 1992, when it was retired. It then went into the Chicagoland Historical Bus Museum until 2011, when IRM acquired it. This bus is being lovingly restored by a volunteer. He told me that as of right now, it runs and drives, but one of the suspension air bags needs replacing.
Finally, I think I’ll close this out with Chicago Surface Lines 84. This 1930 Brill-American T40 is said to be the oldest surviving trolley bus in the country.
It’s incomplete, missing headlights, seats, and other parts, but IRM says that it does run and drive. This bus entered service in 1930, then was retired in 1951. It was then gutted of its seats and used as a locker room for Chicago Surface Lines work crews. Electric Railway Historical Society got it in 1960 before that museum shuttered in 1973, with the bus getting in IRM’s hands.
More Than Buses
Funny enough, I even ran into a reader at Bus Day. Apparently, I’m probably one of just a few regular weirdos preserving a piece of transit history. So when I started talking about my RTS, it was pretty obvious who I was.
There was also an antique shop with random transportation-related artifacts for sale. To the left there is a metal sign with the Illinois Regional Transportation Authority’s logo on it.
I’m unsure what this sign was attached to, but wear marks suggest that it was framed in something. Not that it matters; I got it because it looks so cool. And to the right are two magazines, the older one details some of the development of the GM RTS. Meanwhile, the newer one contains a complete production record of the Nova Bus version of the RTS, including my bus. These will absolutely come in handy in the future.
I ended the Bus Day learning a lot and smiling from ear to ear. Honestly, I didn’t expect that some of the most fun that I’d have at a train museum would be playing with buses, but that’s what happened. I even got to meet people working in the transit bus industry.
A lot of those people were happy that there are organizations out there saving these buses from the scrapper. As a few of those folks told me, cars have an easier time getting saved by museums because they’re smaller, easier to keep going, and can be more popular. That means that a lot of buses get sent to the junkyard when their service lives are over. So to them, as it is to me, it’s awesome not just to see saved buses, but saved buses that actually run and drive.