Wellington Scoop

All-electric = more diesel

by Lindsay Shelton
Councillors faced a cynical audience in the Aro Valley Community Hall last night when they tried to explain how their policy of having an all-electric bus fleet includes removing 60 electric trolley buses and replacing them with diesels. There was more scepticism with the discovery that the all-electric fleet isn’t likely to arrive for ten years.

Paul Swain of the regional council made the announcement of the 2025 deadline. His reason: technology isn’t yet sufficiently advanced for electric buses to be chosen now. He said there’s to be an “electric bus symposium” next year when the council hopes to discover the latest information. “If we could get electric buses earlier, we’d get them.”

He insisted the his bus rapid transit system aims to reduce congestion in the CBD, but he failed to respond to critics who say it won’t do this. (And more critics.)

“The bus rapid transit system condemns us to clogged roads in the CBD,” said Demetrius Christoforou of Trams-Action. “Nowhere in the CBD do we have enough street space for BRT. It can never work in the CBD. It’s collective denialism.”

The issue, said John Rankin of FIT, is how to get light rail back on to the agenda.

Paul Swain explained it wasn’t on the agenda because it “just wasn’t affordable.” Or more precisely, because the government wouldn’t pay for it. He said light rail had to be discounted because it would cost three times as much as buses, and this was not acceptable to the government. “It’s very sobering.”

His audience became restless. Why were the councillors not standing up and campaigning to change the government’s mind? As Len Brown had done in Auckland …

Andy Foster offered a compromise. Though the government won’t pay for light rail, the councils are trying to secure a road corridor for a future light rail system from the station to the airport….in case there’s a change of policy at some future time. He warned, however, that laying tracks through the CBD would cause serious disruptions during construction. Paul Swain said he was “keeping light rail in mind” for two major public transport routes: Johnsonville to Island Bay, and Karori to Seatoun. “We’re trying to preserve the two corridors.”

As for removing all the trolley buses from Wellington, Swain gave three reasons:

The high cost of updating the infrastructure, the lack of reliability (diesels, he said, are more reliable) and the lack of flexibility (their routes cannot be changed.) He agreed, of course, that diesel buses are not pleasant for pedestrians or cyclists. (“The smell.”)

Asked how he planned to explain why the council, with its all-electric policy, was planning to drop electric trolley buses in favour of diesel?

“With great difficulty,” he replied.

Everyone agreed, however, on the shared aim of getting people out of their cars and into buses and trains. There’s a real need for such a policy. When Transmission Gully and the Kapiti Expressway are completed, these roads of national significance will encourage many more cars to drive into the Wellington CBD.

Paul Swain: “We are in competition with the car. We’ve got to make the passenger transport experience so good that people choose to use it.”

What would you choose? More buses? Or light rail?

Read also:
Electric cars and a network of charging stations

News from Generation Zero
Next Wednesday, the Regional Council will decide the future of our Wellington bus fleet. They will decide whether we take a step forward into a clean energy future by keeping our buses electric, or a step back by buying new diesel buses.

Please sign the petition now to keep our buses clean. We’ll be delivering it to the Regional Council next Tuesday. Over 1,700 people have already signed – but we need to get that number up to 2,000 by Tuesday.

If you are able, please join us at the petition delivery in Wellington next Tuesday.

The Council announced last year that it was planning to scrap Wellington’s electric trolley buses and replace them with hybrid buses. While this was a controversial decision at the time, the situation is now worse – the Regional Council is now considering replacing the trolleys with diesel buses. This would be a backward step for Wellington, meaning more noise, emissions and local air pollution. We can do better than diesel.

At the least, we we can hold the Council to their original promise – or even better, get them to reconsider options to keep the trolleys running.


  1. Kerry Wood, 3. December 2015, 11:32

    Charging battery-powered vehicles needs heavy-current DC. The Regional Council has such a system, powering the trolleys, which it wants to scrap. Paul Swain’s reasons, given at the meeting last night, look shaky.

    Substations and cables: Kiwirail has very similar systems which are fine. It doesn’t all need fixing, and some of the bits that do need fixing can be scrapped instead: it was designed for more trolleybuses than use it today, and WCCL has some award-winning cheap-upgrade methods.

    Reliability: Upgrading the overhead is almost complete, and the solution to the other problems is driver-training.

    Inflexibility: Wellington’s trolleys could be fitted with modern batteries for a lot less then the cost of a new bus, and would then be capable of running off-wire for kilometres, then recharging the battery ‘under the wire’ with the bus in service. A battery bus recently ran 1000 km without recharging, so ten or twenty kilometres should be simple enough.

  2. John Rankin, 3. December 2015, 11:33

    We need to keep reminding Paul and Andy that light rail transforms not only the public transport service features, but also the urban form and the underlying urban infrastructure. They both stated that this is what they are trying to achieve. If council is aiming for an all-electric PT fleet, then light rail would be a good place to start, as the technology is mature, proven, reliable, and available off-the-shelf.

    But Paul’s point about the benefit-cost ratio is well-taken. Those proposing light rail need to show that the business case stacks up economically, as well as environmentally and socially.

  3. Michael Barnett, 3. December 2015, 11:35

    The funding allocation for for Wellington regional transportation allocates 87% of the budget to road construction and road related activities and a mere 10% to public transport, walking and cycling. The current plan also allocates over $1 billion to expansion of the road corridor between Ngauranga and the airport. Half this sum would be sufficient to buils a light rail system from the rail station to the airport

    NZTA can only think in terms of road construction and they have got it wrong. This is our city and it should be designed around the needs of people, not cars. Greater Wellington and the the city council should stand up to NZTA and demand a greater allocation of funds to public transport, walking and cycling.

  4. KB, 3. December 2015, 11:37

    Light rail or more buses? Eventually it will all be personal rapid transit: point to point autonomous vehicles on demand as a user requires. It is only a question of when, not if. So with that being the undeniable endgame scenario, the question is what do we use in the 10-20 year interim? Seems obvious that if the solution is only going to be temporary (until PRT arrives), that we should be doing the lowest cost option. In my mind that means sticking to buses, rather than investing hundreds of millions into light rail infrastructure that will be obsolete in two decades.

  5. John Rankin, 3. December 2015, 14:20

    KB, that’s a recipe for congested streets, because cars are inefficient users of road space. See http://www.citylab.com/commute/2013/11/case-against-cars-1-utterly-entrancing-gif/7628/. Personal autonomous vehicles make sense for suburban travel, where buses carry few passengers and hence require large subsidies. For mass transit along busy urban routes, light rail will continue to be the most space-efficient transport mode. A more likely future may be light rail along high density city travel corridors, with feeder services provided by small, on-demand autonomous vehicles.

    To quantify this, assume autonomous vehicles require half the road space of a human-operated car, because autonomous vehicles can travel closer together. To match the peak carrying capacity of two light rail lanes (one up, one down), you would need about 8 autonomous vehicle lanes.

    It could be argued that personal autonomous vehicles are more of a threat to the motorway network currently being built north of Wellington. When people have to rent a vehicle by the minute, they may want to live closer to where they work, not in an outer suburb, to reduce the travel time and hence cost.

  6. Newtown, 3. December 2015, 22:50

    Paul Swain doesn’t seem to know anything about modern bus technology. Volvo manufactures top notch buses that run on 100% electricity or hybrid, both with rapid charging systems.

    India is investing in these type of buses, so why aren’t we? Our leaders seem be only be interested in the lowest cost options, not what’s best for the environment and its people:

    This video is amazing, showing the bus in action:

  7. Mark, 4. December 2015, 22:21


    There’s a new flash-charge project underway in Geneva – this is the immediate future of suburban commuting. Even our existing trolley fleet can be retro-fitted with batteries and chargers.

    The rail station to airport is NOT primarily a commute, even though it can provide great commute benefits as well because of the route it takes.

    Diesel is just backwards thinking for NZ – we have ample renewable-sourced electricity.

  8. Curtis Nixon, 5. December 2015, 2:08

    If we ever get electric light rail couldn’t we piggy-back the power supply off the trolley bus power supply? Or augment the current (no pun) one so it can do both?
    One more reason to leave the trolley buses alone.
    The GWRC, most of its councillors, and its policies are a sham. They are a puppet of the government. It should be abolished and its functions devolved to the existing councils which would become unitary authorities.

  9. Kerry Wood, 6. December 2015, 8:09

    Curtis: I think probably not. The voltage would be different (750/550 VDC), reliability would need to be very good (often with grid power into the substation from two independent circuits), and a tram might take enough current to give even a trolleybus system a headache. What will certainly be useful is the substation sites. And remaining poles and attachment-points to buildings might also be useful. WEL have some interesting ideas for smart connections on the trolleybus overhead, which might also be useful for light rail.

    At the FIT meeting last week, Paul Swain virtually admitted that the government had told the Regional Council not to choose light rail, which is all very well if buses are a viable alternative, and of course they could be if GW & WCC faced up to the road-space implications .

  10. burg, 6. December 2015, 10:37

    John Rankin: i think he’s talking about a different concept. prt is a term used for basically personal trains, either suspended or just below ground. i kinda hope he’s right. Reviews of the concept have been pretty positive.

  11. Palazzopete, 6. December 2015, 17:39

    John Rankin shows some sympathy with the electric buses/light rail options but then states: “But Paul’s point about the benefit-cost ratio is well-taken. Those proposing light rail need to show that the business case stacks up economically, as well as environmentally and socially.”
    May I ask why this is so? I doubt that he would demand that a policy stack up environmentally and socially as well as economically. I believe that one would have to look hard for a policy that meets all three criteria. John Rankin’s question is just another way of saying economics trumps all.
    And by the way a recent trip to Lyon where there are modern with-battery trolley buses showed that these are very flexible and non-polluting.

    I won’t mind betting that Paul Swain and his colleagues have never seen such a system in operation.

  12. John Rankin, 8. December 2015, 18:04

    Palazzopete: in my view, light rail is one of the few local infrastructure investments that stacks up environmentally, socially, and economically. Light rail advocates have done a good job presenting the social and environmental benefits, less so for the economic benefits. Whether we like it or not, infrastructure spending decisions have to stack up economically; only projects with good benefit-to-cost ratios get funded.

    To get light rail approved, we have to show that the economic case stacks up. It’s not hard to do; it just needs work. If Wellington gets the route right (which the spine study didn’t) and gets interchanges with the bus system right (which the spine study didn’t) and takes a no-frills construction approach (which the spine study didn’t), the economics of light rail are excellent.

    More broadly, I think we would make better policy decisions if we took a “triple bottom line” approach, considering economic, social and environmental factors. An economics-only lens has given us “bus rapid transit.” The transformation of the urban form and underlying urban infrastructure that light rail brings has simply been ignored.