Sometimes a bus is just a bus.

I work in the news media. I understand the process that surrounds translating jargon — from cop-speak to biz-speak to complex medical terms — into plain English which the average reader can understand. It can be a clumsy process. Purists will call and e-mail and send letters insulting your education and intelligence.

From that perspective, I think we’ve all lived with those tacky, rubber-tired “trolley” buses long enough that I try not to wince too hard when a reporter refers to them as trolleys. Rightly or wrongly, that is what the builders and operators call them. So long as somewhere in the story the word bus shows up, I think that’s an acceptable compromise. And generally, context will make this clear.

This story, however, takes the trolley talk a little too far. I don’t want to climb too high up on my newspaper high horse in bashing a broadcast reporter, though I suspect a modicum of research, explanation and editing might have avoided some needless confusion.

This is, after all, a story about a bus. It’s got four wheels and there are no rails in sight. But the reporter writes that the village of Woodstock, Vt., “has received a $215,000 grant to finance a 21-seat electric trolley.” Nowhere in the story does it refer to the vehicle as a bus, and since we’re talking about an electric vehicle, I’m wondering if it’s the real thing. This sounds like one heck of a deal for a real trolley. Does the village have an existing heritage line I’ve never heard of? Is the car a restored original? Because that could, just barely, explain such a low price. It’s described as an electric trolley, so what gives?

A visit to MassTransitMag.com quickly set me right.  Their page included a reprint of a local newspaper article which, while using the term trolley throughout much of the piece, opens with this clarion explanation: “An electric-powered “trolley” bus will soon be churning through Woodstock …”

Ah, what a pair of quotation marks can do! We now know what the vehicle is and is not. It’s a bus. And not just any bus, but one with the eco-friendly benefit of being powered by electricity that’s been generated using cow manure. How lovely.  Actually, it all sounds like a great plan, which is more relevant to me and the environment than whatever cheesy wannabe retro body shell they put on top. 

So why should I rail on about nomenclature? Because it’s not a trolley, which is an entirely different mode of transportation with different infrastructure, costs, maintenance requirements and, indeed, passenger-carrying capacity. And if we were talking about a vintage trolley line, that could serve as a tourist attraction in its own right. A rubber-tired impostor juiced by flaming cow shit doesn’t quite have the same aura, now does it?

It’s a bus — an interesting, high-tech bus, but a bus. Let’s just call it that.

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