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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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4]. In August, the DomPost and eyeofthefish.com both stated reasons why the proposal lacked credibility [5]. In December, Kerry Wood and John Rankin extended the argument [6] 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 [7], 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.