Wellington Scoop

Riddled with errors and contradictions – Regional Council’s public transport plan

by Kerry Wood
Like the Spine Study before it, the Regional Council’s Public Transport Plan (PTP) is riddled with errors and contradictions, and will inevitably fail to meet expectations. The public transport plan objective, Go where people want to go at the times they want to travel, is empty rhetoric.

My suggested approach is that the Regional Council go back to an interim plan, with a focus on review, research and re-costing, supported by knowledgable consultants. Councillors should then be able to make adequately informed decisions in 2015 or 2016.

There follow twelve main areas of concern, grouped under three broad headings:

Route framework
• The golden mile has insufficient capacity for the routes proposed
• BRT without passing lanes at stops has very limited capacity, but there is no space for passing and no commitment to a second route
• There is no commitment to high-capacity buses
• Route architecture is muddled, with important objectives pulling in opposite directions

Opportunities missed
• A developing climate/energy crisis is ignored, together with the draft PTP’s emphasis on emissions
• The very low emissions from trolley buses are understated, hybrids overstated
• Trolley buses and their overhead offer a low-risk stepping-stone to new electric buses
• Trolley bus costs are probably overstated and certainly too unreliable for decision-making

Bad or ignored advice
• Trolley buses are not inherently slow: it is mainly driver training
• The trolley bus overhead is not overloaded: it carried twice as many buses in the 1970s
• Trolley bus age and condition is much better than claimed: the 57 near-new, low-floor, three-axle buses have been mixed up with the 3 two-axle prototypes
• Local government responsibility for the costs of trolley closure is understated

1. Route framework

The Golden Mile
The only central city route chosen for public transport is the traditional golden mile. Wellington City Council is very doubtful about finding space for a second reserved route, but clear that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as proposed by the Regional Council, will not meet the ITDP standard (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy). Too many streets are too narrow, and the performance of the worst stop sets the capacity limit. We can expect the capacity and congestion problems the ITDP standard was designed to manage: ‘bespoke’ is the term used for Wellington’s BRT route.

BRT Capacity
The nominal capacity of quality BRT on the golden mile is no more than sixty buses an hour each way, and very likely less. Two capacity limits are dwell times at stops without passing lanes, and junction capacity to simultaneously allow adequate BRT and motor traffic priority. Failure will perpetuate today’s bus queues, and the draft PTP shows that proposed bus numbers are still too high.

High Capacity Buses
There are no decisions on new BRT bus-size or geometry, and the bus types proposed are not costed in the draft PTP. At the Regional Council committee meeting on 12 June, officers implied that core routes might not use high-capacity buses. London’s new double-deck buses were mentioned, with three sets of doors. Two problems with this approach are that double deckers offer surprisingly limited capacity (87 total, 62 seated) and further stop delays. Both problems are due to the stairs—they take up space and slow passengers—and both are critical on the golden mile. The more usual approach is bendy-buses with three or more sets of doors, and level entry.

Route Architecture
Apart from four new core routes there are no clear decisions on some fundamental route architecture.

The proposed core and local routes run reasonably consistent hours but with annoying minor variations, damaging coherence for the sake of trivial cost savings. Why, for example, run different services on Saturdays and Sundays? Why is the Kingston core route every 15 minutes during the day, when the other core routes are every ten minutes?

The targeted routes (other than school and night buses) are all peak-only, linked to all-day routes in one of two ways:

• Along main all-day routes to the city centre, with or without peak-hour extensions at the outer ends. Route F is an example.
• Along secondary all-day routes to an interchange with a core route, then continuing to the city centre, sometimes as an express service. Routes B and H, for example, usually run past Wellington Hospital and terminate at John Street, but peak-only services continue to the Railway Station.

The first result of this arrangement is moderate bus traffic on the golden mile outside peak hours but too many at peaks. The problem is not more buses—that is inevitable—but too many more buses. They could have been managed by having passengers transfer to larger core-route buses at suburban interchanges such as John Street.

The second result is self-deception. Peak-hour services are costly because they need extra buses which work only a few hours each day, but at least they meet a demand. Non-peak services on secondary routes may run empty, at much the same hourly cost as a peak-hour bus. Lightly-loaded non-peak buses are inevitable, but it is odd that none of it attracts subsidies. The Regional Council is treating all non-peak daytime services as commercial — though the operators certainly don’t — and hiding the substantial costs of little-used services.

These routes would be much cheaper and more effective if they stopped short of the inner city, at an interchange with a core route. This is where to realise the large-scale cost savings available from interchanges, route rationalization and faster buses.

The Regional Council seems to have missed two points from the Bus Review (MR Cagney study):

• The revenue and social service objectives are in conflict, and there is no guidance on how to manage the inconsistencies.
• ‘Buses should not compete with walking.’

The 2010 PTP contained a complex table of the proportion of residents within given walking distances, which in practice overrode the requirement for stop spacings. Now all that has gone, but the routes and stops it created are largely intact, locking in the conflicting objectives of competing with cars and providing a social service:

• What happened to the Opus observation that few peak-hour buses on the golden mile are more than a third full? Fewer buses are practical.
• What about increasing bus speed on all routes, for both productivity and patronage? There are benefits in direct services, not stopping too often, with delays managed.
• What happened to using interchanges to manage bus-kilometres, bus-hours and golden mile congestion? Again, the benefits are productivity and patronage.
• And above all, what is the basis of all the decisions taken?

An option suggested by Jarett Walker is fixing the proportion of bus-hours allocated to revenue and social services. This would ensure that an adequate proportion of buses generate revenue and the social services are limited to an acceptable proportion of costs.

2. Opportunities missed

Energy Crisis
The draft PTP ignores a rapidly approaching fossil-fuel tipping-point. Climate change, resource depletion, carbon taxes and energy scarcity are emerging realities, likely to become much more apparent within the six-year term of the draft PTP. This is presumably the reason for the PTP’s emphasis on emissions. Renewable fuels and dual fuels can help to manage supply and resilience risks—electric buses in the central city, electric rail in the suburbs and perhaps biodiesel elsewhere.

Inaction is throwing away — literally — some of the most sustainable buses in the world. Electric buses in New Zealand are much better for the environment than any other bus option because three quarters of grid electricity is renewable.

Bus Emissions
Trolley and battery buses have very similar, low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (in these cases from the power station), with very low emissions of other pollutants and zero local emissions. Ignoring battery buses, which are not yet fully commercial, the next-best option is conventional hybrid buses (diesel/battery), with about three quarters of the emissions of a diesel bus.

A new bus costs around $380,000 for a diesel, $600,000 for a hybrid and $700,000 for a trolley. The catch is that a new hybrid is much more polluting—in all the senses above—than an existing trolley, and worse still in comparison with a new trolley. Given the strong PTP focus on lower emissions, a reasonable minimum objective would be no deterioration of bus GHGs. That will need two hybrids to replace one trolley (or three hybrids to match the performance of a new trolley). One will emit more GHGs than a trolley bus while the other emits fewer than a diesel, keeping a broad GHG balance (but not particulates). On this basis the capital cost of hybrids will be $1.2 million to offset the GHG emissions from taking off one trolley bus.

Despite this, we have seen a tendency to accentuate trolley costs and disadvantages, and ignore benefits. For example Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) noted:

All options offer environmental benefits, including those that scrap the trolleys in favour of Euro V / VI diesels (Jacobs, slide 7).

This was obviously incorrect for GHGs (PwC Figure 19). It remains incorrect for hybrid buses unless the initial order is over 100. This is a courageous decision for an initial order by a small city with no severe pollution problems.

As visiting specialist Dr Malcolm Mcculloch commented, the next generation of hybrids will be cheaper and more efficient, with longer battery lives. It is too early to be comfortable about picking winners, and Wellington can afford to wait.

Trolley Option Value
The objective should not be saving the trolley buses but optimizing a transition to the most cost-effective sustainable technology: electric buses in one form or another. In Wellington, with existing buses and overhead, trolley buses are certainly the most sustainable option at present, and very likely to stay that way for some time. They might be outmoded in three or five years or they might be a longer-term option. Properly handled, the existing overhead is a very valuable stepping-stone to an electric bus future. Options range from managed procrastination or even mothballing, to development as a research platform and development tool. Fixed charging points are best for overnight charging, using cheap power, but the overhead can provide daytime top-up charging with no delays.

A more climate-savvy central government would support Wellington’s trolley buses as a base for electric bus research and development in New Zealand.

Trolley Costings Unreliable
All cost estimates for trolley buses are unreliable because no outline redesign has been done: simple replacement would be costly and pointless. A preliminary overhead redesign is the first job, followed by bus redesign if justified. Plausible estimates can follow when a good preliminary plan is available.

There are indications that retaining the trolley bus system will be cheaper than the $52 million quoted in the draft PTP:

• Expert advice is that a $200 000 testing programme could potentially save $30 million in feeder cable renewals.
• Equipment of the same age and type as Wellington’s so-called ‘museum’ substations is still giving safe and reliable service around the world.
• Maintenance costs will fall substantially as the system is optimised and overhead renewals completed: in about 2022 at todays rate of progress. PwC suggest maintenance costs halved and very little for renewals, or say $1–2 million a year rather than todays almost $6 million. More trolley buses would reduce costs per bus-kilometre with little effect on total cost.

The substation upgrading estimate comes from Wellington Electricity who also state:

This approach [costed at $52 million] is not recommended by Wellington Electricity as the system architecture should be reviewed for suitability of changing Public Transport needs…

Given this extensive investment required across the entire trolley bus supply network, and the advances in modern electric fleet technology, WELL would recommend that GWRC considers optimisation of the present system in conjunction with a range of alternative electric bus options, for which WELL could supply charging and connection infrastructure to at a more economic outcome than trying to replicate a largely superseded 50 year old technology.

3. Bad or ignored advice

Trolley Buses ‘Too Slow’

As recently as 12 June 2014, officials advised that the trolley buses are too slow: Councillors were told ‘all advice’ is that a modern trolley bus system could not match the speed of diesels. That is incorrect.

In my submission I drew attention to claims by experienced drivers that a Wellington trolley is faster than a diesel. I also gave a YouTube link showing swiss trolley buses running at speed under complex overhead, and a method of checking drivers’ claims.

Jacobs (slide 15) confirmed to Councillors, on 4 June, that the trolley buses are slower on average but make some fast trips. The chart presented clearly shows that the fastest bus in each time-slot is quite often a trolley. A trolley is as fast or faster than a diesel if driven properly, as claimed.

The other reason for slow running is bad overhead, which is being steadily improved.

Overloaded Overhead?

Councillors were told that the trolley bus overhead is overloaded, which seems unlikely: it is used by 60 buses, down from a historic peak of 119. Expert advice is that the buses often draw more than 100% of rated load, but the overhead and substations are designed for brief but heavy overloading: for example 300% for up to a minute. This is much longer than a trolley bus needs to reach full speed—the reason for heavy loadings—and no different in principle from modern trolley, tram and railway systems. Expert advice is that if a circuit breaker keeps tripping, the most likely reason is that it needs adjustment. Another possibly is lack of voltage support, also relatively simple to fix. Yet when asked on 12 June why tripping had not been investigated, a GWRC manager said he assumed it was because there was no simple answer.

Bus Condition

Bus condition reporting is disgraceful. Jacobs (slide 30) states:

• The trolley buses are ‘refreshed’ 1980s vehicles with new Designline bodies fitted in 2007-08
• Conflicting information about history and what was done when
• Running gear, electrical and control equipment mostly dates from the 1980s, but some has been replaced over time
• The low floor three axle chassis appear to date from 2007-08
• Some electrical and running gear is around 30 years old; other parts are newer
• The passenger compartments are around 6-7 years old

Jacobs seems unaware that two distinct types of trolley bus are described here: no wonder the slide is confused. The draft PTP states (page 33):

The trolley bus fleet was refreshed during 2007 to 2009, although the upgrades were made using old chassis and motors.

This is presented as a general comment but in fact refers to the test bus and two prototypes, built on two-axle chassis dating from the mid 1980s. ‘Refreshed’ probably refers to these three buses being re-bodied. Jacobs’ first bullet point must refer to these buses.

The fourth bullet must refer to the remaining 57 buses, which are low-floor and three-axle (to carry traction batteries). They have an integrated body/chassis and could not possibly have been built on an old chassis. Neither can they be described as ‘refreshed’. They were mostly-new in 2007–09, with an integral body/chassis, and fitted with two refurbished axles, a refurbished motor, a new control system and a mixture of new and refurbished electrical components. Some refurbished components have since been replaced.

Now the Regional Council has compounded the muddle by quoting Jacobs’ nonsense in full (Responses to Submitters, 6 June 2014), as if it were a reliable source:

It is very difficult to be definitive about the age of the trolley bus fleet because available information is conflicting. Jacobs has concluded the most likely position is: …

An obvious conclusion is that the trial bus and prototypes (three two-axle buses) are near the end of their lives, but the 57 three-axle buses should last longer: one estimate is about two-thirds the life of a new trolley bus, 15–20 years, or until the mid-2020s. The options will be much clearer by then.

Trolley Closure Costs
Officers at the 12 June meeting were clear that the cost of closing down the trolley buses after 2017 is not a Regional Council responsibility. The bus contract has been renegotiated for an end date in 2017 and the only Council responsibility is to meet the operator and discuss closure arrangements. NZ Bus reportedly said it was facing a huge liability. Similarly, taking down the overhead is not seen as a council responsibility.

However, the Responses to Submitters show variations.

Response 3(e) (financial implications of closure, p 4) says:

In regard to trolleybuses the only costs the Regional Council will need to consider at the end of the 10 year trolley bus contract in 2017 are those for the decommissioning of the trolleybus overhead network.

The contract for the provisions of bus services on trolley bus routes provides for no further payments for capital assets if the contract is extended past 2017 – in other words, the Regional Council has no further liability for the capital value of the trolley buses at the end of the current contract term. [Emphasis added]

No further liability for bus capital value leaves open the possibility of liability for operating revenue forgone.

Response 5(i) (cost of pulling down overhead, p 9) says:

The cost of pulling down the overhead wires was not included in the assessment. This was based on an assumption that the decommissioning costs would not be costs incurred by the Regional Council. Some submitters have quoted $20m to remove the overhead network. This has been sourced from a table in the draft PT Plan (page 85), and is actually the indicative capital cost overhead network renewals from 2014-20, including an allowance for removing the overhead wires after 2017 equivalent to one year’s normal renewal costs. The majority of this amount is expected to be used on upgrading sections of the overhead considered likely to fail, and in making health and safety improvements. (Emphasis added)

This time we are told that pulling down the wires is not included — by assumption and contradicting 3(e) — but then given a Regional Council estimate: it works out to about $4 million, which seems very light for such a task. The Regional Council are assuming that the overhead owners, Wellington Cable Cars, owned by Wellington City Council, will retain most of the support poles and wires, which also support many other cables.

The cost will be borne by WCC rather than GWRC, but still come from the public purse. The cost of dismantling disused overhead will still be a cost of introducing trolley bus replacements, even if GWRC manages to wriggle out.

Kerry Wood is a retired Wellington engineer with a long-standing interest in transport matters.