Wellington Scoop

United in support of trolley buses: the bus company and the bus drivers

With its decision to scrap trolley buses in 2017, the Regional Council has created anxiety not only the bus company but also for the city’s bus drivers.

NZ Bus was discreet but precise in stating its opposition when the proposal was announced. “Disappointing,” was all it had to say. But in March it was more forthcoming about why it is opposed to the plan:

As an operator, having $40million in assets retired halfway through their expected life span provides little incentive to invest in new fleet, particularly when 2017 is only three years away and we don’t know what that new fleet requirement will be. There are a number of options available to the Regional Council, the simplest of which is to extend the trolley services through to 2022 when the new services proposed under the Spine Study are to be implemented.

And when 300 drivers stopped work this week to discuss their concerns, the bus company came out in support of its staff. Here’s what chief executive Zane Fulljames said on June 25:

We support the unions’ right to take the time to ensure their members are properly informed of what the draft Plan means for them, including the implications of ending trolley services and transitioning to new technology. Trolley buses have been operating in Wellington city since 1949 and NZ Bus staff are proud of the technology and its benefits. In 2007 NZ Bus invested $36 million in modernising the trolley fleet. There are 60 trolley buses in operation out of the region-wide bus fleet of 517, of which the remainder are diesels. Any potential transition to a fully hybrid fleet is a significant change and carries specific implications for workshop staff who do not have the specialist skills required for electrical fleet maintenance.

At their stopwork meeting, drivers voted to oppose scrapping the trolley buses. The DomPost reported

The unions’ concern is that with trolley buses out of the mix their owner, NZ Bus, will be at greater risk of losing contracts to rival bus companies. That could mean NZ Bus has to resort to job cuts or winding back its terms and conditions in order to stay competitive.

The drivers passed two resolutions: One was to urge the council to delay its decision on scrapping the trolleys until the region was ready for fully electric buses and the technology had been proven in Wellington; the other was for the council to put provisions in place protecting current wages and conditions for drivers regardless of which bus company it awards contracts to from 2017.

The Regional Council’s Paul Swain attended the meeting. He said the council was not prepared to spend $52 million upgrading their power supply and substations.

But his figures have been challenged by engineer Kerry Wood in articles on wellington.scoop. On May 22 he wrote:

• Modernising the trolley infrastructure is about a third cheaper than upgrading, because the system can be optimised: around $34 million instead of $52 million.

• Closing the trolleys will cost nearly $20 million. A fair comparison would add this to the cost of replacement diesels, a total of $42 million: modernised trolleys would be about 20% cheaper.

And more

Wellington is in a very unusual position: modernising the trolleys is cheaper than either repairs or replacement because the timing is right. Modernising a substation costs the same as simple replacement. A modern voltage needs fewer substations: half of them can be scrapped. The buses need modernising too, but this costs less than the saving on substations, as well as making the trolleys much more efficient….The trolleys have already been rebuilt and modernising needs little more than new motors, control systems and batteries, around $100,000 for each bus, $6 million for 60 buses.

The Regional Council has chosen not to respond to Kerry Woods’ analysis. And only two regional councillors have spoken out in support of trolley buses – Paul Bruce and Sue Kedgley say the proposal to ditch Wellington’s iconic, non-polluting trolley bus fleet is short-sighted and foolhardy. But the short-sighted and foolhardy decision has now been made.

RadioNZ: Fran Wilde and Nicola Young discuss trolley bus decision

Maximus: Off your trolley