Wellington Scoop

Why trolley buses are more cost effective than battery buses

by Paul Bruce
“European cities are steadily converting back to trolleybus public transport“ was the message from Gunter Mackinger at a recent public meeting in Wellington. “Complete public transport systems cannot easily convert to fully battery-operated systems, and there is a significant problem with battery life and consequential waste disposal.”

Mackinger is an electric transport consultant and former general manager of Salzburg Railways and is now working with organizations such as the UITP (International Public Transport Organisation) and the German Government. He advocates trolleybuses and trams as an essential green emission investment in modern liveable cities.

Mackinger gave examples of new trolley buses being purchased for Seattle, San Francisco, Mexico, and west European cities Salzburg, Linz, Luzern, Arnhem, Eberswalde and Bratislava. Turkey has now mandated trolley bus systems for its smaller cities under 10,000 inhabitants, and modern light rail in the bigger cities. Major Chinese cities such as Beijing are ordering large numbers of new trolleys to replace diesel and its experimental battery buses. Shanghai is re-opening trolleybus lines after a recent closure decision, and Guangzhou is undertaking continuous network expansion.

Mackinger pointed out battery bus technology has proven to be impractical in the medium term future, except in very limited special applications. “The few systems which are using battery only buses are doing so in small numbers as a trial, on selected routes.”

bus men
Left to right: Cr Paul Bruce, Gunter Mackinger, Allan Neilson, Alan Wickens.

I was delighted to hear Mackinger’s support for trolleys and to be shown that trolleys were cost effective compared to battery buses and polluting diesel buses. Mackinger’s statements were backed up by studies at three independent German universities.

However, the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s continued determination to trash Wellington’s clean green zero emission trolleybus fleet flies in the face of emerging evidence of their value.

I have called for an urgent review of the GWRC business case, and I warn that the extra polluting diesel buses would lead to a 2000 tonnes extra of carbon dioxide per year, and a 20% increase in the small 2.5 microns particulates that lodge in respiratory tracts leading to cancers and asthma of people in the Golden Mile. Both result in future costs to the economy. Euro diesel standards don’t ensure the removal of the smallest and most dangerous exhaust particles. Nor do they bring lesser greenhouse gas emissions.

A new business case should concentrate on the east/west route which has a considerable amount of new overhead wiring, and include the cost of modifications to increase the reliability of the power supply network, as well as the installation of lithium ion batteries in the trolleybuses for off line capability.

Aggregated costs of abandonment of clean green zero emission trolleys are estimated by Allan Neilson as being about $34 million (of which $20 million is a charge to public entities), compared to a cost of $15 million for an upgrade of the entire network, and a further reduced figure for the east-west route.

300 cities around the world manage trolley bus networks successfully and I am confident that GWRC has the governance and management capability to operate its system as well as other cities.

The Council’s aspirational target is for a low emission city, and Wellingtonians support retention of their electric buses and see them as a vital part of their low emission city.

Paul Bruce
 is a Greater Wellington Regional Councillor

Important upcoming dates
Regional Council 9.30am on 6th April, when tender documents will be approved.
The date for approval of the new operators has been deferred by one month until October.


  1. The City is Ours, 21. March 2016, 11:04

    I believe the Regional Council’s misguided decision will take away our choice to support emission-free rides, and scores no points on the radar of any schemes locally or internationally.

  2. Curtis Nixon, 21. March 2016, 11:25

    Right on Paul. Trolley buses rule and GWRC should be dis-banded on the basis of the disastrous decision to trash the trolleys. This decision shows that they are totally in the pocket of NZTA-National Government who only cares about more roads and cars and to hell with rail, trolley buses or any other transport mode.

  3. Ralph McCorkindale, 22. March 2016, 11:41

    I agree that it is a retrograde step to do away with the trolley bus network in Wellington. The emission comparison speaks for itself. There are GWRC councillors who have very informed backgrounds, but their decision to endorse the purchase of diesel buses makes me question their wisdom.

  4. luke, 22. March 2016, 17:46

    the only reason they are doing this is so they can route island bay buses to johnsonville and award the run to newlands coachlines from what I can tell.

  5. Wellington Commuter, 22. March 2016, 20:02

    It’s true that the inability of the trolleys to service suburbs north of the Wellington CBD (not only one Wellington’s largest population areas but also the place plans to have maybe half of the citiy’s population growth) both limits their use and causes bus congestion along the Golden Mile at peak.
    But to be fair to the GWRC, not having to find the $50 million required to upgrade the DC power stations to keep just 61 trolley buses going for another 10 years must count as another important reason to drop them.

  6. IanS, 23. March 2016, 21:12

    There is continued political manipulation and scare tactics involved in the repetition of the stupid statement from Wellington Electricity about the cost of upgrading all of the DC substation equipment. Wellington Electricity was responding to a direct question “what would it cost to upgrade all of the substations?” BUT there is no engineering suggestion that they all need upgrading!

    The report from traction engineer Allan Neilson stated that they have been operating satisfactorily for many years like old tractions systems everywhere, (e.g. Melbourne trams) and most of them will continue to operate for many more years. He suggested that sensible maintenance routines could see some of them upgraded every year – via a small addition to the annual $5m maintenance budget.

    Moving from an electric trolley bus system to diesel buses is a bad strategic decision and will be the huge waste of money. The political scare tactics worked the first time – but it is time for councillors to admit it was a mistake and revisit the issue using credible technical and cost information. The failure to include all-electric options in the tender documents to be approved by GWRC on the 6th April supports the contention of bias against electric buses. We will be stuck for another 25 years of dirty diesels polluting our city.

  7. Councillor Helen Ritchie, 24. March 2016, 10:40

    Hi Paul: thanks for your excellent and ongoing effort on this issue(s).
    We at the Wellington City Council have been informed by your Chair Paul Swain that the decision regarding trolley bus retention cannot be reversed or stopped now. Is that correct? Or not correct? Is the date of April 6 the final date for approval of tender documents for purchase of diesel/electric buses?

    Keep up the good and persistent work

  8. Cr Paul Bruce, 28. March 2016, 21:09

    Hi Helen: Final tender documents will be approved on April 6th for release, and we understand that “quality” points will not include consideration of greenhouse emissions or offers of electric vehicles. However, it should be noted that incumbents will be awarded some routes without having to make a tender, and these contracts won’t be finalised until after the tender process has been completed, which will in any case, be after the local body election in October. In my eyes, this means that we could reverse the decision to remove the trolleys on the east/west route which will not be offered up for tender. The number of trolleys available matches quite closely that required for the east/west route!

  9. The City is Ours, 29. March 2016, 12:03

    We are still waiting for the Golden Mile Safety Audit ordered after an inquest on 3rd March 2015. It seems the road controlling authorities are oblivious to this.

  10. Rob, 6. April 2016, 14:04

    Despite the comments of Swain and Laidlaw, it seems to me that a replacement light rail system from the railway station to the airport could be installed quite quickly in two $100million stages:
    (1. Railway station to the site of the current Kilbirnie trolley depot where a new tram maintenance centre would be built and
    (2. Kilbirnie to the Airport by one route or another- Nth or Sth Coast or under the runway by expanding the Coutts St pedestrian subway.
    Cost would be minimised by closing the golden mile to cars and buses during construction and using the trolley tunnel and moxham ave as the route to Kilbirnie. Std 4.8 tram gauge would be used to minimise cost of new or second hand construction and because dual running on heavy rail is impractical given extra cost of crush avoidance strength.
    Some sort of credible replacement is required for the iconic trolley buses and there is too much doubt that the supposed hybrid double deckers are simply a stalking horse for largely single decker diesel replacement after a decent interval.

  11. Chris Watson, Architect, 17. April 2016, 19:07

    Trolley bus rescue is the only way that Wellington streets can become clean and green in the medium term. Trolley buses are every Wellingtonian’s electric vehicle – propelling us to lead New Zealand city’s drive to sustainable transport.

    Council mismanagement of Wellington transport is a fiasco, which would barely be credible as a plot in the “Yes Minister” comedy about a bumbling public service. Regional and city councilors’ statements about becoming “green” are shown to be disingenuous in the extreme when their ambitions to burn even more cancerous diesel in the heart of our prime business, retail and cultural area are exposed.

    Citizens of large and small cities enjoy first world public transport services and Wellingtonians deserve the same. Sydney city council is right now cleaning up the once congested and polluted George Street with fast, frequent electric public transport.

    Over 300 cities around the world are capable of managing their trolley bus fleets. If Wellington city and region needs help managing the trolley bus network, they can hire a transport professional from Germany to advise on operation and protection of this valuable strategic asset.