The Skoda 14Tr Trolleybus in Kaunas
by Ian Simpson
IntroductionThe city of Kaunas lies at the confluence of the Neris and Nemunas rivers in south-central Lithuania. With almost 300,000 people (around half a million when the city region as a whole is considered) it is the country's second-largest city. Kaunas is a hilly and picturesque city but also a hard-working one whose thriving cultural life has led to it being named as one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2022.
The transport authority responsible for overseeing the city's public transport network is KVT (Kauno viesiais transportas - literally "Kaunas' Passenger Transport") and the principal operator is the municipally-owned Kauno Autobusai (KA - "Kaunas' Buses"). KA has a fleet of 152 trolleybuses in a lime green livery and 278 buses which wear all-over red; these are deployed on a network of 14 trolleybus and 43 bus routes which between them provide a comprehensive coverage of the city. Until very recently a large proportion of the trolleybus fleet was made up of Skoda's iconic 14Tr model of which around 3,200 were built between 1982 and 1999. Kaunas operated 144 14Tr in total over a 37-year period and this article is my personal tribute to these long-lived servants of a city I've been fortunate to visit on several occasions.
Before the 14Tr: The Dawn of the Trolleybus Age in Kaunas
14Tr in the Soviet Era
Left: No.253 from the 1986 delivery, photographed in 2006 wearing a non-standard all-over red livery. Right: 1987 trolleybus no. 266 in the standard red and cream livery worn by the 14Tr for much of their service lives.
Almost immediately after the cessation of 9Tr production in 1982 - 7,372 having been built over 21 years - Kauno Troleibusų Parkas took delivery of its first example of Skoda's new model, the 14Tr. Rather than evolving from the 9Tr, the 14Tr was a complete break from the past, featuring thyristor control and an angular body design which immediately made the 9Tr with its 1961-designed bodywork look quaint and dated. The first Kaunas example was numbered 215, following on from the 9Tr sequence (1-214) without a break. Regular deliveries of the new trolleybus continued throughout the 1980s with nine in each of 1983, 1984 and 1985 followed by seventeen in 1986 by the end of which year 45 units were in service and the fleet numbers had reached 259. These vehicles were not just for fleet replacement but also to meet the additional vehicle requirement generated by the opening of a new route to Eguliai and Kalniečiai to the north of the city.
Left: No.298 was new in 1988 and is seen here in 2006 wearing an all-over advertising livery for Hansabank, something that would have been unthinkable back in the Soviet era. Right: 323 from the 1990 delivery, wearing the red / cream standard livery which was common to several Eastern Bloc trolleybus operators well in to the post-Soviet era.
1987 and 1988 each brought 21 further 14Tr into the fleet, taking the numbering system up to 302. Vehicles 303 and 304 of 1989 were Kaunas' first and only examples of the 18m-long articulated Skoda 15Tr; these were to have relatively short lives in the fleet and both were scrapped by 1999. Skoda 14Tr deliveries resumed at number 305 with sixteen (305-320) delivered in 1989. Far more significant events were happening in Lithuania and 1989 was to be the country's final full year as a state within the Soviet Union. The final 14Tr deliveries to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic were of just four units, 321-324, in 1990; these brought the total 14Tr fleet to 108.
Independence and the Autrolis Years
Above: Two photographs of no. 332 in an experimental livery which was applied in 2006 after the bus underwent major repairs following accident damage. The livery celebrates the tree-covered hills of Kaunas, and the Nemunas and Neris rivers which meet in the city. No. 332 was new in 1983 to PMDP Plzen in Czechoslovakia as its no. 362 and was one of six sold to Kaunas in 1994.
On March 11th, 1990, Lithuania declared her independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the first member state of the Union to do so. This declaration was bitterly contested by the USSR which blockaded Lithuania and launched an unsuccessful military offensive against the country's Parliament, the Saeimas. The United Nations recognised Lithuania as a sovereign state on September 17th, 1991. The Soviet blockade and the 18-month period of "limbo" between the Declaration of Independence and its international recognition had a terrible effect on the country's economy and the five 14Tr delivered to Kaunas in 1991, numbered 325-329, were to be the last new vehicles here for a while.
Left: Autrolis no. 337, a member of the 1995 batch of 14Tr. Right: No. 360, one of ten 14Tr acquired secondhand from TTTK, Tallinn, in 2001.
In 1995 a Limited Company - UAB Autrolis - was formed to take over the operations of Kauno Troleibusų Parkas. Effectively the equivalent of an "arm's length" municipal operation in the UK, Autrolis was fully owned by the City of Kaunas. Autrolis was managed completely separately from the company set up to own and operate the city's diesel bus fleet, UAB Kauno Autobusai, and that created to take over the city's long-distance bus station and coach operations, UAB Kautra. In the same year ten new 14Tr were delivered, numbered 336-345. By 1998 the Skoda 14Tr with its high floor and step-entrance was obsolete and the Czech manufacturer decided to call a halt to its production. The final new examples for Kaunas, 347-351, joined the fleet in 1998, by which time the spacious new centrally-located depot at Islandijos plentas had replaced the previous cramped facility on the outskirts of the city.
Into the European Union - The Beginning of the End for the 14Tr
Left: Autrolis no. 355, the oldest unit amongst the ten acquired from TTTK in 2001 and destined to last until 2019, photographed on the Buses Worldwide tour of the Baltic States in May 2007. Right: Photographed on the same visit, almost brand-new Solaris Trollino 12AC 036.
On March 29th, 2004, Lithuania ascended to her place at the top table internationally as she became a full member of the European Union. The guarantees of freedom, democracy and human rights protection that this brought with it would have been unimaginable two decades previously when the first 14Tr rolled out on to the streets of Soviet-occupied Kaunas - yet Lithuania's EU membership brought with it the seeds of the type's fall from dominance. The first 14Tr withdrawal, however, had nothing to do with the EU. On December 18th, 2004, no. 316 from the 1989 delivery was involved in a serious road traffic accident and was written-off as being beyond repair.
14Tr: The Final Years
Two views of 14Tr in the all-over green trolleybus livery of Kauno Autobusai. Left: No. 245 of 1986, in its 34th year at the time the picture was taken in October 2019. Note the home-made sun visor in the windscreen, a feature of Kaunas trolleybuses through the years. Right: No. 350, the penultimate 14Tr delivered new to the city in 1998. This was my last ever photograph of a 14Tr in service in Kaunas.
2014 was to prove a very eventful year for municipal transport in Kaunas, not so much for the 14Tr but very much so in terms of the environment in which they operated. Autrolis' financial performance had been poor for some time and by 2013 - in contrast to Kautra which was successfully establishing itself as Lithuania's no. 1 coach operator and buying out smaller municipal bus operations all over the country - was losing money at an alarming rate. The reasons were complex. Part of the problem was competition from the private "route taxis" - yellow minibuses operating over several of the city's better routes - but others were internal to the organisation itself. Towards the end of 2013 the CEO of Autrolis was dismissed and from April 1st, 2014, the company was dissolved and all operations were transferred to Kauno Autobusai (KA). The lime green trolleybus livery was retained in order to differentiate the electric buses from the red diesel ones - the two colours are used on maps of the city's bus network too, if you are lucky enough to find one - and all route numbers remained the same. The second change of 2014 was the removal of the yellow route taxis from the streets of Kaunas. This prompted a predictable outcry from the vehicles' owners but it led to an immediate upturn in KA's fortunes.
Two photographs of the same vehicle, taken about five and a half years apart. Left: Hermes 5223 (BL-VX-73) seen wearing its original blue livery but with the "breng" fleetname introduced when operations around Arnhem and Nijmegen were transferred to Hermes in 2013, on 31st March, 2014. Right: Some 1,600km to the north-east, Kauno Autobusai 054 (KCH661) prepares to turn right outside Kaunas railway station in typical Lithuanian autumn weather on 1st October, 2019.
By 2016 the fleet was lacking in capacity to meet demand on some routes at peak times and a solution was found in the shape of seven 18m articulated DAF / Berkhof AT18 trolleybuses from the Netherlands. 043-049 dated from 2000/1 and had operated all their lives in Arnhem although, thanks to the Dutch network tendering system, they had all had three different owners. Their final Dutch operator was Hermes, in whose fleet they were numbered 5213 / 12 / 17 / 19 / 18 / 20 / 14. Evidently considered to be a success, they were followed in 2017 by similar 050-057, ex-Hermes 5222 / 24 / 30 / 21 / 23 / 25 / 26 / 31 which had been new in 2002. There was no corresponding mass withdrawal of 14Tr arising from the Dutch acquisitions although three vehicles - 235, 253 and 256 - were withdrawn as life-expired in 2017. Indeed, under KA ownership 14Tr withdrawals had slowed to a trickle with only penny numbers going between 2014 and 2018. The European Union had set a target date of 31st December 2019 for the withdrawal of vehicles not accesible to Persons of Reduced Mobility (PRM) and so the days of the 14Tr with their high entrance steps were numbered.
Four of the special "farewell" liveries applied to Kaunas 14Tr for their last few months in service. Top Left: No. 238, one of the oldest survivors, was given this red-based livery promoting one of Kaunas' more off-beat tourist attractions, the Devil Museum (Velnių muziejs). Top Right: No. 263 was transformed into a running track. Bottom Left: No. 278 was treated to a caricature-style cityscape. Bottom Right: The livery applied to No. 288 celebrates the city's funicular railways.
At the beginning of 2019 Kauno Autobusai still boasted a fleet of 91 14Tr. For the record, these were 232/4/8/9, 244/5, 250/2/4/5/7-9, 260-9, 271-5/7/8, 280-9, 290-9, 300-2/5-9, 310-5/7-9, 320-6, 332/5-9, 340-5/7-9, 350/1/4/5/8. Of these the oldest, 332/5 and 355, were approaching their 37th birthdays. Once their replacements, a fleet of 85 Solaris Trollino 12M with Solaris 'Urbino IV' bodywork, were ordered many of the surviving 14Tr were repainted into special "farewell liveries" to eke out their remaining time in service as a mobile art installation. The streets of Kaunas had never been so colourful and it is unlikely they ever will be again.
For more than half the lifetime of the Kaunas trolleybus network the bulk of its services had been provide by the 14Tr which had proved itself to be a robust and generally reliable servant to the people of the city. If we assume that every 14Tr covered two million kilometres in service - probably an underestimate - then the fleet of 144 units covered an equivalent distance to that from the earth to the sun and back, all on the streets of Lithuania's second city. It is possible that the total may yet go up slightly as seven units - 232/9, 264, 273, 283/8 and 338 - were retained into 2020 to act as emergency reserve vehicles although the latest fleet list shows these buses as withdrawn, possibly in the light of service reductions due to the coronavirus pandemic. I understand that at least one 14Tr has been sold into private preservation but have no further details at the time of writing.
Top Left: the livery applied to no. 305 imagines the city's two rivers, Nemunas and Neris, playing chess together. Top Right: "I love Kaunas" proclaims no. 310. So do I, and I will be back - although it won't be the same without the 14Tr to ride around on! Bottom Left: Elderly ex-Plzeń no. 335, at thirty-seven years old, was given a livery celebrating space exploration. Bottom Right: My Lithuanian isn't brilliant but I think the message on no. 355 translates as "signwriting inscriptions". This is another remarkable survivor built in 1982.
All text and photographs © Ian Simpson, April 2020
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