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

bus-troilley [1]

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. [2] 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.