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Why there’s no reason for getting rid of the trolley buses this year

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by Mike Flinn
We are now in the last weeks of trolleybus operation in Wellington, a situation that the Greater Wellington Regional Council was working towards before 2014.

The aim to stop trolleybus operation came about before the 2014 Draft Transport Plan was issued when the GWRC (and no doubt the Transport Agency which provides Government transport subsidies) realised that Go Wellington, the owner and operator of Wellington trolleybuses, would have a competitive advantage if new contracts (called PTOM contracts) were to be offered for trolleybus services within Wellington City.

Consequently, the 2014 Draft Transport Plan announced that trolleybus services were to stop in 2017, with the section on trolleybuses giving a very unbalanced opinion of these services and giving the two main reasons as:

the old age and condition of the trolleybuses and
the life expired condition of the Direct Current Power Supply ($50 million to replace).

The Draft Plan is issued for consultation purposes, seeking feedback from the public. Submitters told the GWRC that the trolleybuses were not old (built between 2007 and 2009) and had years of life left in them after 2017.

In the final 2014 Transport Plan, the GWRC conceded that there was 5 to 10 years life left in the buses by including an additional sentence. But they left the original criticisms in place. After paying for the trolleybuses for 7 years, GWRC should have been well aware of the age and condition of these buses but this misinformation was part of the aim of getting rid of them.

The power supply claim was more of a technical issue on which most submitters had no knowledge and it was on this sole remaining main point that the GWRC resolved in 2014 to get rid of the trolleybuses in 2017.

This however changed in 2016 when a technical report from an experienced DC traction power engineer explained how it would be economically possible to extend the life of the power supply equipment to provide a reliable supply for the remaining life of the trolleybuses. This report has been ignored by the GWRC.

If this had been done, the trolleybuses could have had a full service life. Progress on developing reliable and affordable battery electric buses is slow and it’s anticipated that it’ll be at least 5 years (ie 2021) before this might happen. Battery electric buses when adequately developed and affordable will be the only buses able to provide a low emission equivalent to trolleybuses. But their development to an acceptable and viable level is still years away.

Report to Regional Council March 2005

Recently I obtained a copy of the March 2005 Report to the Regional Council advising that Land Transport NZ (LTNZ – predecessor to the Transport Agency) had approved the “upgrading” of Wellington trolleybuses and would contribute towards the upgrade as well as provide subsidy towards their operation for a 10 year term (from 2007). The Report recommended that GWRC go ahead with the upgrade in conjunction with LTNZ, recognising that there were advantages through :

Local health effects, lower noise and no emissions (nitrous oxides and particles) especially in the CBD and
National Environmental effects, no greenhouse gases (CO2) and
Energy Efficiency, recognised that electric motors were more efficient than diesel motors and
Financial Benefit, passenger preference for trolleybuses over diesel buses will give some unquantifiable financial benefit and
New equipment on the trolleybuses intended to achieve a 50% reduction in dewirements.

In addition, Cabinet had supported the upgrade work to maintain the public transport levels of service in order to retain mode share between cars and buses as a priority for investment. An overall subsidy of $4 million per year for trolleybuses was anticipated to be shared between LTNZ and ratepayers.

This information was not provided in the 2014 Draft Transport Plan, though it was still relevant to the future of trolleybuses. Overall the Draft Plan’s information on trolleybuses was inadequate, being both inaccurate and lacking in relevant background information not only for the potential submitters but also for regional councillors making the decision.

GWRC attitude towards the trolleybuses

GWRC failed to realise that the “upgrade” essentially resulted in a new bus because to be acceptable in 2007 it had to have a low-floor accessible section and the electric motor was moved to the now customary rear placement. A rear third axle was needed which allowed a capacity increase to nearly 70 passengers. To keep the original cost down, some components were transferred from the previous trolleybuses including the electric motor (which was rewired), axles and steering gear. The effect of this was to potentially shorten the usual trolleybus life of up to 20 years.

GWRC has consistently stuck to its belief of a 10 year life to fit in with its need or determination to have a clean sheet for the PTOM contracts it issued in 2017. Now the PTOM contracts have been allocated it has set a closing date of 31 October for trolleybus operation – without any clear operational, technical or financial reasons for doing so.

The trolleybuses are still available and should be used on all routes until June 2018 and on Go Wellington operated routes such as Karori Park to Miramar/Seatoun and Wellington Station to Lyall Bay for the term of their direct operating contract, for which up to 40 trolleybuses could be needed.

Budgets for the 2017/18 year should cover the operating costs of full trolleybus operations until June 2018. This means that the demolition of the overhead lines should be deferred saving initially over $10 million. There is an urgent need for a programmed development for trolleybuses and associated equipment for a minimum of a 5 year period by GWRC, NZ Bus, Overhead Lines and Power Supply contractors to properly plan through this period.

Replacement of trolleybuses by surplus diesel buses from Auckland is completely unnecessary and unwarranted, resulting in much higher emissions. This includes cancer linked nitrous oxide and particle emissions especially within the CBD and increases in greenhouse emissions (CO2) which the NZ Government has promised to reduce. Trolleybuses emit neither of these gases.

GWRC bus replacement choices

Having decided to get rid of trolleybuses, GWRC has come up with various replacement options none of which are suitable at this time.

Firstly, in 2014 it announced that diesel hybrid buses would be bought. But once it properly checked on the situation in NZ and found that they were not viable, this option was dropped. The next type on the wish list has been to get double deckers into service and has required its new contractor to order 40 diesel powered versions for service in 2018.

In August and September 2016 I took peak hour passenger counts on several routes including Island Bay and Johnsonville (Route A in the Plan) on two occasions and the peak hour patronage fell well short of the level needed to justify double deck buses. This is the first basic test to establish need in order to justify them and it has failed.

GWRC claims that these buses will help reduce congestion in the CBD but higher loadings on each bus resulting from its proposed 2018 route changes will only extend the dwell time at each stop and will not reduce travel times. There are other less expensive alternatives to achieve this which should be done first. These double deck buses are currently unnecessary and should be moved elsewhere.

Battery Electric buses

The latest announcement is that 10 battery electric double deck buses will be bought in 2018. This can only be greeted with incredulity given the situation with battery electric bus development. Battery Electric buses are still mainly in use in small numbers, many as prototypes or development vehicles, often on carefully chosen routes and in most cases the purchase cost is supported by government grants. Battery costs are still high (for example diesel hybrid battery costs have been quoted at $70,000 each) and as battery life is not yet determined the warranty period of 5 years is the only certainty. Current knowledge is that several expensive battery replacements will be needed through a bus life.

There are several versions of batteries in trials using various elements and there are at least 3 recharging methods in use such as plug recharging, inductive charging through a plate in the ground and overhead charging using a pantograph lowered from a gantry. Operational options range from large batteries for all day operation which are recharged overnight, through to smaller batteries recharged at points during the day and also sometimes overnight. The weight of larger batteries can reduce passenger capacity to meet road weight limits while the buses with smaller batteries require down time for recharging and this may require more buses overall. All these variations are being trialled in various locations overseas with no clear options being favoured so far.

Information on the component suppliers of the 10 proposed buses indicates that no existing buses in use have the same mix of components, so the first bus will be a prototype with a long proving period before service acceptance and the other 9 will be development vehicles which invariably have a shorter life. These buses will be very expensive ($900,000 each (?) with charging facilities on top) and the prices will not come down until volume production increases which looks to be several years away.

Technical training of staff in this changing situation will also influence the ability to achieve future reliable performance.

It also must be recognised that Wellington is half a world away from suppliers and any faulty components are likely to take some time to replace or manufacture unless the bus components are part of a large volume output.

There can be no justification for ordering any battery electric buses now. Even the UK in mid-2017 had only 170 battery electric buses operating, of which only 5 were double deck out of over 20,000 buses in the country. London has the largest size single deck battery electric fleet of 51, entering service in late 2016. The remainder are scattered around in smaller numbers and even Nottingham, which has been one if the larger users, has now turned to gas buses (CNG) for larger size low emission buses. Government subsidies, uncertainty of battery life and cost and also the need for more experience of recharging options, are the factors influencing the slow introduction of battery electric buses in the UK.

Savings through not operating double decker buses (both diesel and battery electric) could be used to support continuance of trolley bus operations.

GWRC Electric bus policy

GWRC has dreamed up a policy to be the first in NZ to have an all-electric low pollution fleet. This aim is quite inappropriate because bus age, condition and finance should determine bus replacement timing, and not a competition to be first. Its premature excursion into battery electrics as its first steps towards this policy completely disregards the current realities of the market. There is no place for Wellington farepayers or ratepayers to fund expensive battery electric bus development through their contribution of over 75% towards annual operating costs.


Retention of trolleybus operation for five years or so is at present the most practical and affordable option to continue low emission services while battery electric buses are further developed.

Diesel double deck buses and battery electric double deck buses are not currently justified and savings through not operating them should be used to continue trolleybus operation in the meantime.

Mike Flinn was Deputy General Manager of Wellington City Transport from 1985 to 1990