Policies heading in opposite directions – trolley buses versus climate change

A few weeks ago the Wellington Regional Council opened its climate change strategy for public input and suggestions. In the Council’s own words, “as well as planning for and adapting to the effects of climate change, we also want to ensure we are doing all we can to mitigate climate change by addressing greenhouse gas emissions.”

A laudable goal, particularly given the increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists about the rising costs of infrastructure damage due to the extreme weather that a warming world brings. Recent news reports noted that New Zealand’s storm damage bill had exceeded $100 million since the beginning of this year alone, with more to come.

Which is a vital issue for Wellington ratepayers, given that many of the infrastructure assets managed by the Regional Council are vulnerable to climate change, such as the essential flood barriers along the Hutt River.

So given the importance of the issue, it was strange to see the Regional Councillors dutifully lining up to make climate change worse by voting to get rid of the trolley buses. In the same week that the council started to consult on the climate change strategy, the majority of our elected councillors took a firm step backwards and decided to increase Wellington’s transport emissions. Yet the information about the climate change strategy seems to pretend this never happened: “Currently we do this through activities such as promoting and providing low emission transport options, supporting ecological restoration activities and sustainable land use, and encouraging household energy efficiency” (emphasis ours).

As Kerry Wood pointed out in a well researched article in wellington.scoop, the allegedly “clean” diesels being enthusiastically promoted by the Regional Council have dramatically higher carbon emissions than the actually clean electrically-powered trolley buses. So in a world where scientists are calling for aggressive de-carbonisation of the transport fleet, the Regional Council’s decision to move in the opposite direction based on dodgy economics and cherry-picked data seems like an exercise in perversity.

Given the very clear air-gap between what the Council is saying and what the Council is doing, it does beg the question as to what the purpose of the climate change policy actually is. Despite the increasingly urgent need for significant emissions reductions – clearly identified in the strategy – the Regional Council’s transport policies have headed in exactly the opposite direction; massive roading projects have been enthusiastically championed, railway stations have been closed and the bus network is now being aggressively re-carbonised.

So perhaps the climate change strategy is merely window dressing, meant to give Councillors a warm glow without necessitating any tangible action. Perhaps it’s designed to function like a cloak of green acceptability that can be wrapped around the shoulders of Councillors who are actively voting to make the planet less habitable for their grandchildren. Or perhaps the thinking of Council officers and our elected representatives has merely become so compartmentalised that they’ve lost the linkage between cause and effect.

After the climate change strategy has wound its way through public consultation and eventually comes to a vote at the Council table, it will be interesting to see how it proceeds. Wellington already knows the views of the green-leaning Councillors, Paul Bruce (retired meteorologist) and Sue Kedgley (former Green MP), who both voted to keep the trolley buses. We can presumably expect them to follow their convictions and their track record.

So the real question is how the anti-trolley Councillors will vote. Will they also follow their pro-carbon convictions and their track record of making the planet a worse place to live if it will save a few dollars, and vote against the climate change strategy? Or will they take the easy way out, saying one thing whilst doing the opposite?



  1. Trevor Albert, 28. July 2014, 8:47

    Except that replacing the entire current fleet of trolleys and diesels reduces the whole fleet’s overall carbon emissions. And the hybrid option is a deliberate pathway to an all-electric fleet. Not just a few trolley buses, but all of the buses. That’s not going to be a financially viable option if the regional council are stuck replacing the whole trolley infrastructure this time round (which they’d need to do). Then we’d be stuck with a partially carbon zero fleet like we have now. I appreciate that sometimes maths is hard, but the arithmetic here is that with a prerogative to spend wisely, keeping the trolley buses is a worse option for us and the planet than a phased move to the fully carbon zero bus fleet we need.

  2. Matt, 28. July 2014, 13:45

    Replacing the trolleys will reduce emissions. It’s shortsighted to focus on the trolleys as being carbon zero. The trolleys are one the main elements holding the bus system back from being fast and reliable, so patronage will stay stuck where it is while they’re here. I use those buses every day, and the trolleys are slow, they get stuck, they block roads when the wires come off, and they’re available only on a limited section of routes.

    If we get rid of the trolleys, while the buses will be emitting more, we can increase the use of the system and get people out of their cars. One diesel bus is far better for emissions than a craptonne of cars.

  3. CPH, 28. July 2014, 14:11

    It’s not the transport stuff that makes me wonder about the regional council. It’s the consultation questions. They want the public to contribute ideas for how to stop climate change, really? Are the council out of ideas or do they just think we should be doing their job for them?

  4. Robert Miles, 28. July 2014, 15:08

    All the old tram wiring wore out in Dunedin. Wellington and Auckland in 1980-1 and in Wellington it’s been patch and interim electrics since then. Probably the romantic desire to maintain the trolley system resulted in a cheap improvisation of Ashburton bus bodies being put on overhauled old trolley bus electrics, but the renewed trolley buses were huge and unusuitable for Wellington compared with the old trams.
    In terms of hybrids, the Christchurch Yellow ones only ran on the flat and I remain unconvinced that hybrids will prove suitable for more than about a third of Wellington’s routes. Modern trolley buses or trams cost about $2million each but I gather there’s a large market of second hand 70s and 80s trams, so maybe a loop around courtenay place and new tram routes to Lyall Bay and Seatoun with a tunnel under the airport.
    The disruption of traffic is a useful feature of trams and like the cancelled Basin flyover it will discourage casual driving.

  5. Robert Miles, 28. July 2014, 16:16

    Herbert Morrison, (uncle of Blairite Peter Manderson) when he was a big wig with the London CC in the early 1930s decided to abandon trams, partly because trolley buses were seen as more flexible and still ran on cheap clean electric power, but also to encourage families and individuals to get out and about in cars and give families a bit of country air.
    Conversion of London to trolley buses came up against overwhelming opposition in the late 1930s, because the trolley bus turning circles at the end of their routes took up too much space from nice gardens in the suburbs. In 1952 the remaining south London and cross city tram routes were ripped out and replaced by buses. The resulting bus pollution from diesel buses was estimated to have caused 20,000 deaths in the 1952 smog. While the loss of trolleys in Wellington is not likely to do too much damage to health or increase global warming, partly because their use has been limited by the worn out substations and overheads which mean they have not run during weekends for 50 years, it does show the abandonment of trams was a mistake.
    Wellington and Christchurch trams were modern and comfortable, they had great community support and the public and councillors had to be tricked into their abandonment. There was tremendous opposition in Britain to the abandonment of modern tram systems in Liverpool, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and most of all Sheffield and Liverpool. The current Sheffield light rail system in part reopens some of the old tram routes.

  6. Traveller, 28. July 2014, 21:05

    The anti-trolley councillors will vote as Fran Wilde tells them to vote. The regional council is a compliant group, always allowing her to get what she wants.

  7. Bob, 29. July 2014, 6:36

    Well written but overlooks the “have your cake and eat it too” option – replace and even expand the trolleybus network and use it as the Core. Modern trolleybuses can run both electric and hybrid diesel. The overhead wiring if built correctly could also serve as the charging ports for all electric buses. Run on the wires where there are wires and pull the poles down where there are no wires, Boston Silver line has done this for a number of years successfully and Dayton in the USA is building full dual-mode buses which will go 80kph under wire and without wire. Wellington may be on an island but it doesn’t have to ignore what has been done in Europe and America

    “Clean diesel” is an oxymoron and marketing tool.. there is no such thing.

  8. Traveller, 29. July 2014, 8:34

    So Fran Wilde has instructed her compliant regional councillors to ignore what’s being done in the USA. What’s the real reason for her opposition to the trolleybuses?

  9. Bob, 30. July 2014, 2:39

    hybrids as an interim before all electrics? who are they kidding? a new bus be it hybrid or trolleybus will be here for the next 20 years. the current buses will need to be replaced, so why is it impossible to buy hybrids to test and to preserve the trolleybuses into the future. electric for the trolleybuses can come from solar, wind, any number of sources not tied to the supply of oil. I have heard of no new breakthroughs in battery technology that will allow hybrids to be a viable alternative in the near future. and one thing no one wants to mention: hybrids are VERY heavy vehicles. every place that has run them has had to spend serious money to fix and maintain the roadways on which they operate. also not mentioned is that hybrid batteries need to be replaced every 5-6 years at a significant cost. (ask the company building the buses how long they will warrant the batteries for?). some of these buses carry 3500kg of batteries plus the weight of the bus and diesel engine plus complicated electronics. New York City is converting many of their hybrids back into straight diesel buses because of the problems.




    think long and hard before tearing out a significant infrastructure that could prove valuable and very expensive to replace – consider all the cities around the world that removed tram systems 50 yrs ago and are now spending billions to replace them.

    “those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them.”

  10. Brent Efford, 1. August 2014, 15:21

    You are right, Bob. The big mistake of the past was failing to implement the 1990s proposals for light rail, completing an electric rail spine off which an electric feeder bus network could be hung.
    The real issue now is whether we can trust the GWRC to follow through with conversion to a 100% hybrid bus fleet (which, if achieved, would be a net improvement), with 100% battery (presumably with inductive or overhead charging infrastructure, rivaling trolley wires in cost) to follow.
    Of course we can’t – just witness the Council’s dishonesty and incompetence in framing and conducting the PT Spine Study which led to all this. Under pressure to minimise investment in favour of roads, the GWRC will predictably opt for a 100% diesel fleet come 2017.

  11. Rosamund, 12. August 2014, 17:07

    I am mystified. Surely keeping, renovating and then regularly maintaining the trolleybuses and their poles and wires would be the option of anyone wanting to be sustainable. GWRC has made many silly decisions that seem to be motivated by the need to satisfy overseas commercial interests. Why else would the GWRC choose trains that screech and then refuse to traverse railway lines from J’vlle to Wgtn. Buses that seem intended to crush as many wee people in as possible and electronic timetables that show historical movements of buses and “scheduled” services that fail to materialise.

    ALL elected representatives on the Regional Council ought to be required to spend a full week using our public transport services and each providing a publicly available diary detailing, logging, their actual experiences.

  12. Sarah Free, 13. August 2014, 14:06

    Rosamund, sadly, I don’t think very many ( if any!) of the current regional councillors catch Wellington buses. I am very happy to be corrected. I totally agree with your suggestion that they try it though.

    They might find out what it’s like to be dropped off on a wet and dark night a full bus stop before the end of the Island Bay Parade, because the bus stop has been removed, or find out what it costs when you have to take two buses (as you do, for example, to get from Island Bay to the shops or schools in Kilbirnie), or find out how expensive it is to travel from the city to the Eastern suburbs, or what it’s like to be without an evening bus service or any service at the weekends.

    There’s been a lot of talk about fixing these things but sadly, as yet not much action. And although some of us WCC Councillors were influential in seeing that bus fares were not raised, we also asked for a trial of reduced off peak fares and a capped daily fare amongst other things, which we didn’t get.

    However, rest assured we will keep trying.

  13. Mike Mellor, 13. August 2014, 18:53

    Sarah: there is talk about fixing things, and it looks as if some things will be fixed, such as having to pay two fares because there isn’t a through bus.

    Unfortunately, though, while GWRC says that more suburbs will have weekend and evening buses, some things are planned to get worse in your ward. For instance, there will be no through buses from the Miramar peninsula to Newtown, the hospital or VUW (from northern Miramar, three buses will be needed to get to the hospital); evening services to Miramar will be halved; except at the peaks, people from Strathmore will have to change at Kilbirnie, with the last bus over two hours earlier; the Miramar/Seatoun route will be linked with the Karori route, noted for its unreliability and with no improvements planned.

    Please do keep trying!

  14. Dmitry, 27. August 2014, 14:17

    I used to like Wellington as one of the greenest cities in NZ with pollution free trolleys, but on my last visit I noticed there were only poison fumes belching buses in service. It seems crazy to flush millions spent recently on the working fleet down the toilet, because you can’t be bothered to maintain the wires. Do you simply crash them or sell them to another city with more intelligent councillors who know how to run and benefit from pollution free public transport? I don’t like visiting Wellington anymore.

  15. martyn, 21. September 2014, 0:15

    Keep the trolley buses. They’re a part of wellington. Commonsense says more diesel means more carbon emissions. Almost half a million dollars for a diesel bus and there’s over a hundred trolleys to replace… Will the fares go up to pay for it? GWRC need to get a clue… some of the lines on those routes have lasted over 10 years before needing maintenance and the lines being worked on now are due to be renewed after 20 odd years… does not make sense to get rid of them.

  16. Robspost, 12. December 2014, 14:52

    Wellington needs to keep its trackless trolleys, they are an asset which should be preserved. At some future time when electric traction technologies advance to produce an electric bus without need of an overhead infrastructure, while still keeping all of the operational advantages that trolley buses demonstrate, then perhaps the trolley overhead can be eliminated. Speaking of the overhead, those who call it an eyesore need to rethink of the overhead as urban industrial art just as they would a graceful steel bridge or metal streetlamp fixtures or even a bronze statue of an historically notable person.

    The overhead in itself is interesting, the trolley wire (never say cable) is of copper or phospher-bronze and is grooved which in cross-section looks not round but like an 8. The grooved wire is designed to be clamped onto by hangers which support the wires when hung overhead. The actual electrical contact is made by the trolley shoe which is a graphite insert clamped into a housing at the end trolley-pole where it is designed to swivel, which is what allows the bus to pass vehicles and pull up to the curb. (the graphite slider or skid slides along the underside of the overhead wire(s) much as if you took a sharped lead pencil (which is graphite) and run it along a taut copper wire. Engineering wise this stuff is clever intelligently designed and interesting,


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