Wellington Scoop

Getting rid of the trolley buses – still time to stop the scandal


by Glen Smith
More than a month ago I wrote to Chris Laidlaw, chairman of the Wellington Regional Council, requesting information relating to his Council’s decision to dismantle our electric bus system. Despite having a legal obligation (under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act) to reply within 20 working days, no reply has been received.

It is increasingly clear that the Regional Council hasn’t undertaken its duties in a thorough, objective or competent manner in regard to this decision and I stand by my previous statement that this is a scandal.

It seems apparent that the council has not undertaken a proper business case, has not examined the logical option of ‘off-wire’ trolleys until superior battery technology is available, and has not looked at the feasibility or marginal cost of adding trolleys to the electrical supply of a likely future across-town rail corridor.

It appears increasingly likely that, following the election, central intervention will be required, perhaps in the form of a Commissioner, to ensure that this organisation undertakes its tasks in the professional manner that the public should expect.

The council claims that retention will cost $52m but refuses an independent audit, with Mike Flinn, former General Manager of Wellington City Transport, putting the figure at just an additional $7.5m. Even at $52m, international research indicates ongoing cost savings would make trolleys cheaper than diesel. But no business case has been undertaken. And a Jacinda Adern led coalition Government would likely fund the entire cost anyway.

No examination of the marginal cost of adding trolleys to the electrical supply of a potential future light rail spine has been undertaken.

Diesel fumes are carcinogenic – over 1000 New Zealanders die yearly from man made pollution and diesel buses are being banned from cities overseas – but no proper assessment of health impacts and costs has been undertaken.

Electric buses using existing battery technology remain unproven. But meanwhile the proven immediate 100% electric solution of ‘off wire’ trolleys hasn’t been considered. It appears Tranzit hasn’t been offered the option of building fully electric trolleys that can immediately incorporate any new battery technology, rather than the backward diesels we will likely endure for over 20 years.

No informed consent has been given by the people of Wellington, or even sought. The decision to dismantle our trolley bus system should be deferred, and reviewed after the election.

I encourage the Regional Council to follow the wise principles of ‘review management decisions frequently’ and, more importantly, ‘first do no harm’.”

Here are extracts from my letter to Chris Laidlaw (which I sent on 9 August):

I formally request under the Freedom of Information Act that you forward to me all the in-depth long term financial analysis, including health and carbon emission costs, that has been undertaken to justify your claim that conversion to diesel will save millions of dollars. If this analysis hasn’t been undertaken, could you please confirm this in writing.

…Your organisation should have undertaken thorough analysis of the cost of adding trolley buses to the possible across-town electricity supply of a Light Rail Transport Spine should the LGWM decision process decide this is the best solution for public transport…

I therefore formally request under the Freedom of Information Act that you forward to me all information and analysis of a possible joint electrical supply for Light Rail and Trolley that has been undertaken by the Regional Council. Again if this analysis hasn’t been undertaken, could you confirm this in writing.

And again … I formally request under the Freedom of Information Act that you forward to me all the feasibility studies and financial analysis undertaken by the Regional Council into the option of a full ‘off wire’ trolley bus network for Wellington, and any decision making process undertaken as to why this option wasn’t offered to the public. Again if this analysis hasn’t been undertaken could you confirm this in writing.

Our electric trolley bus network is not only a part of Wellington’s history, charm and character but, at a time of the ever increasing effects of climate change, it’s also a practical and affordable way of achieving a fully electric transport system – just as increasing numbers of overseas cities are introducing. Before we take the irreversible step of dismantling it, the public deserve far more considered thought and analysis.

Glen Smith is a Wellington GP whose medical background gives him an interest in the health effects of climate change and pollution.


  1. Stop Trexit, 18. September 2017, 11:24

    Good article Glen. For much less than the price of one new road junction proposed for SH2 at Melling ($72 million), Wellington’s trolley overhead wiring and electrical supply could be modernised and the fleet rejuvenated. The political parties talk about the possibility of Light Rail sometime in the future, on one route, possibly to the airport at a cost of $700 million to $1.2 billion but we have heard this all before. What is different this election is that GWRC will start to pull down Wellington’s unique 100% electric trolley bus network from November in a wanton act of environmental vandalism.

    What is needed is commitment from central government to fund or invest in the trolley network,electrical supply and trolley buses. NZ First and the Greens have said they will do this.

    GWRC must be aware of the potential for central government funding of the trolley buses and must be instructed to seek financial assistance rather than continuing with such wanton vandalism of a Wellington’s environmental taonga.

  2. Susan Says, 18. September 2017, 17:10

    More transparency is required and we’re not getting it.
    Apparently the GWRC decided to get rid of the trolley buses rather than repair the network.
    Let’s see some actual numbers so we can evaluate the GWRC’s decision which right now looks like environmental vandalism for the sake of the bottom line.

  3. Conn Sheehan, 18. September 2017, 20:37

    Thank you Glen for approaching the GWRC to supply you with all relevant information regarding their decision to scrap the Wellington trolleybus fleet. In the Wellington public’s interest, all known Health and Safety aspects have to be presented to the public. The destruction of the trolleybus fleet for Wellington does not only have long term environmental issues, but also health effects.

  4. Stop Trexit, 19. September 2017, 11:35

    The research skills of Brent Efford have found this recent letter by John Haley, Director of San Francisco’s Transit Operations, commenting on the city’s trolley bus fleet and the inability of current battery buses to fulfill the city’s needs. Pity we don’t have someone similar to John Haley in charge at GWRC.

    “We are excited about the possibility that one day we will be able to provide an all-electric fleet that won’t require overhead wires. This is why we have been and will continue to take steps to test these vehicles on some of our smaller community routes through potential grant funds. However, it is factually incorrect and irresponsible to suggest that anyone knows that off-wire electric buses are ready to operate in San Francisco.

    Despite what marketing departments at some of the electric bus manufacturers claim, there isn’t a bus manufacturer that can produce the number of electric buses San Francisco would need, nor would they be able to guarantee that the vehicles would work for the required 15 years with our heavy ridership and steep hills. The technology is just getting started. In fact, there are less than 200 electric buses operating in the United States.

    Some cities might just now be purchasing off-wire electric vehicles, but anyone familiar with San Francisco and Muni service can tell you that we have the largest electric bus fleet in the United States (more than 250). Electric trolley buses carry our heaviest loads on some of our most demanding routes. We’ve been a pioneer in the electric vehicle industry for years and we are going to continue that trend of providing a fleet that is meant to provide safe and clean service for everyone”.

  5. George, 19. September 2017, 23:22

    It is important to move promptly in filing for judicial review of this decision. I think there are a few very clear grounds.

  6. Adam, 20. September 2017, 20:34

    Move on with the times and invest in fully electric, battery powered buses.

  7. Keith Flinders, 21. September 2017, 10:19

    Battery buses will be the future. At present, the cost and service life of the batteries are the barriers to seeing them adopted in huge numbers. Batteries used have a finite number of times they can be recharged, but the technology is evolving. The bus in the item you linked to had/has a cost of $1.2 million, so about three times that of a trolley bus.

    In China where most battery buses are built some cities have gone back to trolley buses and are extending trolley bus infrastructure because it’s more cost effective at present. Most of the battery buses put in place for the Bejing Olympic games have been withdrawn due to battery issues.

    I find it strange that the GWRC alludes to a battery bus fleet in Wellington yet hasn’t taken the step to trial any here. Instead we expect to see ten untried double decker buses running the new north to south routes some time in the next 24 months.

  8. Conn G, 21. September 2017, 14:35

    People are being duped by the GWRC that by scrapping the trolleybuses and replacing them with poor track proven battery buses, Wellington is in a win win situation. Well it’s not! I’ve seen the battery buses used in Shanghai, but the wise authorities over there retained the trolleybus wires and reverted back to them when the battery buses failed. Like Keith Flinders is saying, the GWRC is using this excuse to scrap the trolleys, but haven’t been using any battery bus test versions for their appraisal. This is just a pretext to scrap the trolleys and have simplified tendering processes without complicated routes.

  9. Morris Oxford, 21. September 2017, 16:02

    Think “Island Bay Cycleway” and “trolleybus wires” and begin shuddering.