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Old and decrepit – why trolley buses are being scrapped next year

by Chris Laidlaw
There is a certain amount of mythology around the relative costs of keeping as against scrapping the trolleybuses. The Regional Council’s decision that the trolleys would be discontinued by mid-2017 wasn’t one that was taken lightly but it was inevitable for several reasons.

The most significant of these is the fact that the trolleybus network severely reduces the flexibility of the Wellington bus system as a whole and that alone adds substantially to the cost of providing a fast, efficient service. The other reasons lie essentially with the age and decrepitude of the trolley infrastructure.

Sustaining the trolley fleet beyond 2017 would inevitably raise awkward health and safety issues. There would be additional costs associated with compliance in this area.

Then there are the numerous difficulties associated with trying to maintain a hopelessly outmoded infrastructure. In his assessment of the costs of maintaining the system, [1] Allan Neilson substantially underestimates some of these difficulties. For instance, the assumption that the trolleybuses will be able to use their batteries to see them through out-of-service or faulted sections of the network has been found to be impracticable by the bus company concerned. Another mistaken assumption appears to have been that the DC switchboards would somehow be able to survive without regular failures which lead to disruptions of all trolleybus power supply from that substation which requires costly and inefficient substitutions of diesel buses and very expensive upgrades.

Then there is the reality that the equipment to be renewed has something like a 50 year lifespan and investment in a much shorter period, which is inevitable with the fast approaching conversion to full electric buses, simply does not make commercial sense. Several of Alan Neilson’s suggestions are really no longer practical given the service agreement entered into in 2007 that provided for a 10 year extension of the trolleys which was seen as the only affordable option at that time.

In 2014 GWRC commissioned PWC to evaluate the options for improving Wellington’s bus fleet in order to improve performance across a range of measures. The PWC report [2] found that:

– maintaining the current network (including trolleys) would require significant investment, and was the poorest performing option of those considered. Poor performance came from high network investment costs, poor environmental performance of the current diesel buses, and the unreliability and delays caused by the trolley bus fleet.

– replacing the early Euro diesel buses with modern cleaner technology will bring the largest environmental benefits

– the net benefits of all options are at least $50 million higher than the current network configuration.

To be frank, the trolleybus substations and cables system is far past its use-by date. The electricity network they operate on dates back to the days of the trams which ceased operation in the city in the 1960s and it is the firm view of Wellington Electricity Ltd that it can’t be patched up any longer. Wellington Electricity advised GWRC that to keep key plant equipment operational and to replace aging power cables would cost around $50 million, perhaps more. This would be a huge investment to extend the life of the trolley fleet when it makes up only 12% of the regional network. The buses themselves are also visually misleading. The bodies are in good enough shape but the mechanics are old and increasingly vulnerable. Breakdowns are incessant.

Since taking that decision on the trolleybuses, the Regional Council has set itself an unequivocal objective – to transform the regional bus fleet into fully electric, in the shortest possible time frame. It can’t happen overnight. Replacing older buses and reducing the average age of the fleet to less than 10 years will result in a 33% reduction in tailpipe emissions. This is a significant first step. It is now clear that the hybrid–diesel electric option will be a transitional one and provision has been made for the introduction of at least 10 hybrids over the next few years via the contracting system GWRC has with the operators. Within a relatively short time we will see the introduction of full electric buses which will progressively replace the older diesels and, in time, the hybrids.

It is easy to draw a picture of one option being better across a single dimension such as cost, or carbon emissions. But the Council is looking at a multi-dimensional matrix. People want public transport to be fast, reliable and affordable as well as being clean in terms of carbon emissions and particulates. That’s our objective.

The Regional Council hosted a hybrid bus in January and we are also planning a symposium around the middle of this year to map out the transformation process to a full electric bus fleet.

Chris Laidlaw is chair of the Greater Wellington Regional Council.