Wellington Scoop

Strange days (4) – electric (less) vs diesel (more)

by Lindsay Shelton
The Wellington Regional Council doesn’t seem to have persuaded many people that getting rid of the city’s sixty trolley buses is a good idea. Especially when they’re to be replaced by more diesel buses. Which will be in city streets for ten more years as the promised all-electric bus fleet isn’t likely to arrive till 2025.

The regional council has strangely ignored the strong arguments in favour of keeping the trolleys. Notably from former KiwiRail electrical engineer Allan Neilson who gave councillors a detailed analysis about why it’s more affordable to keep them than to scrap them.

Disregarding his research, the regional councillors voted at a closed meeting to throw out the trolley buses. Only Sue Kedgley and Paul Bruce voted to keep them.

There are also some strong critics of the regional council’s plan for “bus rapid transit” through the CBD. It won’t be rapid, and it won’t get rid of CBD congestion, say the critics. “The bus rapid transit system condemns us to clogged roads in the CBD,” says 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.”

In August, Nicola Young wrote that BRT “bus rapid transit” was a fraudulent name, and the plan should be titled MIB: “marginally improved bus.”

In February, Kerry Wood argued that the plan would result in foul-ups costing nearly $300million. In August, the DomPost and eyeofthefish.com both stated reasons why the proposal lacked credibility. In December, Kerry Wood and John Rankin extended the argument and said the planners’ complacency should be replaced by a new strategy.

A new strategy, of course, would involve planning for light rail and fewer buses. At a meeting last month in the Aro Valley Community Hall, transport experts Paul Swain and Andy Foster were asked why light rail wasn’t included in their public transport strategies. They answered, wearily, that it couldn’t be considered because the government wouldn’t pay for it. Light rail had to be discounted because it would cost three times as much as buses, said Paul Swain.

Why, they were asked, were they not fighting for light rail, as Len Brown has done with such success in Auckland. The question went unanswered. Neither councillor looked ready or willing to start such a campaign.

However, there were small concessions. Andy Foster said 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 (more meaningfully a change of government) at some future time. And Paul Swain said he was “keeping light rail in mind” for two major public transport routes: Johnsonville to Island Bay, and Karori to Seatoun.

Not that there’s any money for this. And not that anyone is pressing the government to consider it.

Celia Wade-Brown was, of course, a strong and convincing campaigner for light rail. Till she became mayor and couldn’t get enough votes to support it. At which time she stopped talking about it. She wasn’t at the Aro Valley meeting, so it wasn’t possible to ask why she hadn’t been following the crusading example of Len Brown.

It was, however, possible to ask Paul Swain how the policy of getting rid of electric trolley buses fitted the policy of having an all-electric bus fleet. And the equally relevant question: when would the all-electric buses be arriving? There was initial disbelief when he said it was likely to take ten years before the new fleet would be here. The reason: technology isn’t yet sufficiently advanced for electric buses to be chosen now. “If we could get electric buses earlier, we’d get them,” he said.

Asked how he planned to explain why the council, with its all-electric policy, was planning to drop electric trolley buses in favour of more diesel. “With great difficulty,” he replied.


  1. Paul Bruce, 4. January 2016, 15:24

    Five new trolley buses have arrived for Seattle’s bus upgrade. Support Wellington Green Councilors’ rescue plan. [via Twitter]

  2. syrahnose, 5. January 2016, 8:15

    The Seattle upgrade is an interesting article. Of course, Seattle at 3.6 million people (more millionaires than any city on earth) is a very affluent city with a dynamic economy. Even then the upgrade of their transit system indicates “The federal government is covering $138 million of the $186 million price.” Auckland is a village by comparison.

    Read deeper there and it’s clear their new experimental battery operated buses, if they work properly, would take 5 years to complete 200 orders from California. Which given Wellington’s poverty and end of the line position globally, makes the 10-year figure for Wellington uptake of electrics reasonable. Presumably, Seattle’s cost for the upgrade to all electric battery buses is way beyond the current 186 mill figure.

    Comparing Wellington to Seattle is peanuts to macadamias.

    Presumably, WCC is saving money buying diesels now so it can afford to own battery buses in future. Seems like a prudent move vs pie in the sky opinions here.

  3. Cr Paul Bruce, 8. January 2016, 18:18

    Yes, there are still some limitations with battery buses relating to the compromise between battery weight and distance between charges.

    Beijing and Shanghai – both have resumed purchase of new trolleybuses after poor experience with opportunity-charging of battery buses. According to International Association of Public Transport 2015, the trolleybus is still the most reliable and most common electric on-road urban public transit vehicle in the world. And results of a study in Osnabrück (Germany) show that the implementation of a trolleybus system is the fastest way to reduce CO2 emissions in the city – better than the use of the most recent diesel bus technology (euro 6).

    Our Green Councillor rescue plan is to continue trolley operation for another 10 to 15 years, while plans are made for light rail along the spine. Battery or trolley buses can then be run on the connector routes.

    Trolleybuses operate in over 310 cities worldwide (56 countries); there are more than 40 000 trolleybuses in operation. 45 trolleybus systems have emerged worldwide since 1990, 27 of which are in Europe. Currently, cities such as Leeds (United Kingdom), Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Malatya (Turkey), Verona (Italy) and Montreal (Canada) are either introducing a trolleybus system or are studying the feasibility of its implementation. 

    Wellington’s trolley performance could be improved with lithium ion batteries, and with the introduction of the even higher capacity bendy trolley buses. However, the study done by an experienced engineer indicates that the network is in relatively good shape and the existing trolleys with new low floor chassis are good for another 15 years.

    Light rail is the real answer for our narrow dense corridors, but our 60 trolleys are already the ideal higher capacity short term answer.

  4. Curtis Nixon, 8. January 2016, 21:05

    Pie in the sky syrahnose? Pie on the ground more like. In case you haven’t been outside lately, Wellington has a beautifully operating trolley bus fleet. In fact there is an upgrade of the power lines going on along Crawford Rd at present which is bizarre considering the Regional Council wants to can the trolleys.
    Thanks Paul Bruce for your and Sue Kedgley’s support for them. Save the trolleys!

  5. Paula Warren, 12. January 2016, 17:25

    Our transport planning is being skewed by two unhelpful influences – NZTA’s unwillingness to treat all modes equitably and build a sustainable, multi-modal network; and the way accounting policies affect capital, operating, cost distribution and long term costs.

    It’s clearly not a lack of transport money. For example the cost difference between the already consented Western Link 1 road and the NZTA Pekapeka motorway was around $400m. That would probably have paid for light rail fixed infrastructure to the airport. It would certainly have paid to double track Paekakariki to Muri and solve the main capacity problem on the North Island main trunk line for freight, as well as the main timetabling limitation for passenger rail on the Kapiti Line (priced at around $280m when the feasibility study was done). But the latter project tis apparently so unaffordable that GW won’t even put it in their rail plan.

    Rail vehicles cost more than buses, but last far longer. Similarly, electric buses last longer than diesels, but cost more up front.

    I have been consistently disappointed in the apparent inability of GW to do the figures properly, and present a sensible case for an effective, efficient, sustainable transport network. Auckland Transport has shown that if you produce a decent plan, it is possible to get it funded. Wellington agencies seem to just manipulate everything to fit with NZTA’s biases.