Wellington Scoop

Inaccurate information was used to scrap trolley buses – new report

Media release from Michael Flinn
The Greater Wellington Regional Council’s decision to convert bus fleets to diesel-electric hybrid vehicles as part of a staged programme to introducing fully electric vehicles, is likely to cause the Wellington City bus services to cost millions of dollars more than it needs to, a new study has concluded.

Michael Flinn, a former Wellington City Transport Deputy General Manager, has completed a review of GWRC’s decisions on Wellington City bus replacement because he considered the decisions have been based on information now found to be incorrect or insufficient.

He also reviewed many of the proposed route and service changes to be introduced next year and recommends significant changes to some of these. He considers that many proposed changes lack awareness of some practical factors that will affect patronage levels and fare revenue income.

The result is a 52-page report released today.

It concludes that GWRC’s decision to cease trolleybus operation in 2017 was made on inaccurate and incomplete information and should be reversed. Trolleybus operation should, it states, be continued to provide an affordable low pollution service until acceptable battery electric buses are available – possibly around 2020.

In the meantime, purchasing new diesel-electric hybrid vehicles should be deferred
and older diesel buses replaced with modern lower polluting versions.

The report challenges two of the principal reasons originally advanced by the GWRC for scrapping the trolleybuses – that the trolleybuses had a 10 year operating contract and thus effectively reached the end of their working life, and that the overhead power network needed investment of more than $50 million to continue to operate effectively.

“The decision about the life expectancy of the trolleybuses appears to have been based on the fact that 10 years was used as the basis for a contract with the operator,” says Michael Flinn. “Trolley buses typically have a working life of 20 years or more.“

The use of some replacement parts in the Wellington trolleybus fleet is a justification
for estimating a shorter life of around 16 years. GWRC has now accepted that the
operating life of the trolleybus vehicles could take them through to around 2024. “In this respect, it was misleading to suggest that the current trolleybus fleet was “life
expired,” he said.

Mr Flinn says an independent senior electrical engineer with extensive experience of direct current traction systems has identified that the power supply and overhead lines systems could be upgraded and continued for the remaining life of the trolleybuses at an annual cost a little above the recent annual costs of the overhead system alone. GWRC reported that $50 million would be needed to replace the whole traction power supply system as the present system could only be used for the “medium term”.

GWRC have not followed up on an independent report to investigate whether the supply could practically be extended to match the life of the trolleybuses and allow deferral of expenditure of at least $30M on the new buses and $10M on overhead lines removal.

“If you are making multi-million dollar decisions about bus replacements, a proper
review should have been sought.”

Mr Flinn says that battery-electric bus technology is still developing and it is too
early yet to invest in them. Retaining the trolleybuses should be a cheaper and more
environmentally-friendly low pollution alternative to the diesel-electric hybrid vehicles
being purchased as an interim measure.

The report is also critical of initiatives such as the proposed early introduction of
double-decker buses on some key routes.

Mr Flinn has also examined many of the proposed route and service changes. Several proposed changes to services require passengers to change buses and wait for a connecting service. The review suggestions are aimed at reducing the need for passengers to change buses with time saving benefits for them.

He concludes that, if the route and service changes are introduced as planned,
passenger approval ratings are likely to fall significantly, fare revenue may fall and
costs will increase, with the result that ratepayers may have to provide more funding.

He recommends changes to address these issues.

The full report


  1. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 8. July 2016, 19:06

    Almost unbelievable if the GWRC has confused contract length with operational life of the trolley buses. Presumably the GWRC decision can be reversed if this report proves trolleys and overhead power supply can be maintained longer.

    As the person responsible for the last comprehensive review of bus routes across Wellington city (1991), I would be interested in the report’s views on the current review. How do I obtain a copy? [The full report is here ]

  2. Councillor Helene Ritchie, 8. July 2016, 19:17

    Thank you Mr Flinn for taking the trouble to examine this issue so thoroughly and making your report available to the public.

    Did GWRC really not peer review this major decision?

    At the last meeting of WCC I pleaded with the Council to stop the Cable Car Company dismantling the overhead wires. All to no avail. Ironically this was just a few minutes after the mayor and councillors were praising their Low Carbon Capital policy. This trolley bus decision is crucial to the future of Wellington, the air we breathe, the car congestion we experience, and the impact on climate change….but WCC can only Influence the overhead wires if at all… The trolley bus decisions are with GWRC. It is clear that there will be a gap, before new buses come on stream, in bus provision after the wires come down- and we (WCC and public ) are not allowed to know what will fill that gap or for how long-but likely with diesel buses. And there are significant issues with double deckers…

    But it seems it will take a miracle now to stop the Cable car company dismantling the overhead wires and the GWRC to reverse its decisions. Any suggestions would be welcomed!

  3. Cr Paul Bruce, 8. July 2016, 22:56

    Mike Finn’s review is very timely, and brings up many deficiencies in Wellington’s public transport planning.
    The Regional Council was blind-sighted into accepting high end cost estimates for maintaining and/or expanding our zero emission trolley bus fleet. In addition, there was no attempt to correct decisions made by the Council with incorrect information on the state of the actual trolley buses themselves.
    This council decision needs to be urgently revisited, and a new business case developed for a modernisation and strategic expansion of the efficient zero emission trolley fleet along the lines of Vancouver and European cities.

  4. luke, 9. July 2016, 7:28

    all this just so they can run the newlands buses to island bay. something stinks. its politics, nothing else.

  5. Ian Shearer, 9. July 2016, 9:42

    Thank you Mike Finn. A very interesting report that reinforces my submissions to GWRC – the timing of the decision to stop paying for the trolley buses was strategically flawed and very shortsighted.

    This decision was pushed through the Regional Transport Committee (a committee of regional mayors and NZTA) by Fran Wilde and Paul Swain. Regional councillors were hounded by the misleading information into ratifying that decision. As Mike Finn reports, the decision was not in the best interests of Wellington City residents, and this will cost us dearly.

    It is already clear that tenders for a full complement of replacement diesel buses has been delayed and a decision to extend the operation of the trolley buses beyond June 2017 is essential to keep Wellington moving. The extension will be needed for at least 12 months and possibly for several years until the next (more polluting) buses are in service.

    Even the small point that the continued use of the trolleys is required proves that the decision to scrap them was too early and not in our best interests. There is widespread agreement (including from NZ Bus CEO) that the trolleys have not reached their end of life, the (WCC owned) overhead wires have nearly all been renewed and refurbished, and that the substations and cables could keep operating with minor regular maintenance.

    We have been let down badly on this issue.

  6. Ben, 9. July 2016, 10:02

    What’s with these people? It seems to be a combination of very poor advice and councillors who do not have the ability or will to ask the right questions. The biggest losers, as always, are the ratepayers. Little wonder our rates are sky-rocketing.

  7. mike, 9. July 2016, 12:42

    it’s 2016 and overhead lines are dangerous and ugly. when i lived in ozy a girl got killed by a overhead line blowing down.
    The DC drive system the trolleys use wasn’t upgraded and costs lots to keep going, every time it rains all the buses stop working because the carbon brushes burn out on the lines. I think the new drive system is a good move!

  8. Russell Tregonning, 9. July 2016, 15:30

    This is most helpful to laypeople like me (and an aspiring GW politician). Even without expert knowledge, the questioning of GW’s decisions by reputable transport experts has made me very nervous about GW’s decisions to scrap the trolleys and their wiring. This new report makes an urgent review of the decision increasingly important.
    What I do know is the urgent need to act against climate change. I also know of the public health threat of burning diesel. The trolleys help both.
    If I’m elected and the trolleys are still with us, I will be lobbying hard for their retention. Ditto the wiring, as this can be a source of electric power to charge batteries in any battery electric buses of the future.

  9. Mike Mellor, 9. July 2016, 18:59

    It will be very interesting to see GWRC’s response to Mike Flinn’s report.

  10. Henry Filth, 11. July 2016, 5:59

    Firstly, “In the meantime, purchasing new diesel-electric hybrid vehicles should be deferred and older diesel buses replaced with modern lower polluting versions.” Couldn’t the existing older diesels be replaced with the new diesel-electric hybrids?
    Secondly, Mike, I’ve never known a Wellington trolley bus stop working in the rain. But I have heard of people being killed by trees blowing down in the wind.

  11. Paul, 11. July 2016, 15:12

    “every time it rains all the buses stop working” Really ????? it rained on Friday and the trolleys were still going.

  12. Seamus, 11. July 2016, 19:24

    The pro-trolley movement desperately needs to go further than just existing in Facebook groups and comment boards like this. Take it to the high court, mobilise people, and put the pressure on the GWRC by getting out there and making yourselves visible. You have the evidence that this decision is wrong so the ball is in your court folks. Bigger things have been toppled through such action.

  13. City Lad, 11. July 2016, 22:56

    Russell Tregonning will be a breath of fresh air on the Regional Council. Only then will our non-polluting trolleys be saved. Vote for him folks!

  14. Wayne Hastie, 13. July 2016, 9:25

    The decision to phase out the trolley buses was made for a range of sound reasons, including the estimated $52m of ratepayers’ money required to upgrade the power supply system that dates back to the trams.
    NZ Bus, the company that owns the trolley buses, is clearly moving on from outdated trolley bus technology and has announced plans to convert the trolley buses to battery electric hybrids giving them full flexibility to operate anywhere on the Metlink network.
    Greater Wellington aims to be the first region in the country to have a modern battery electric bus fleet when the technology is mature and affordable. In the meantime we plan to introduce some new low emission diesel and hybrid buses which will reduce the average of the fleet from 13 years to five years, and reduce tailpipe emissions by 33 percent.
    The Regional Council wants to invest in tomorrow’s bus technology for a cleaner, greener Wellington.

  15. Peter Rendall, 13. July 2016, 20:12

    Challenge all regional councillors and candidates to revisit the GWRC decisions re bus services. The Regional Council seems to want a big bang change, that will see a total collapse after one stream of change fails ie if their proposed route changes don’t work, if their dreamed-for hybrids don’t work, if double deckers are not the magic bullet they hope. Challenge WCC councillors and candidates to commit to retaining the overhead system and the DC supply system.