Wellington Scoop

Why trolley buses shouldn’t be withdrawn this year


by Mike Flinn
The Wellington Regional Council intends that trolley buses will be withdrawn this year, regardless of the fact that they could continue in service till between 2019 and 2024.

To remove any doubt about the suitability of the trolley bus fleet for future service … I have rechecked and can confirm that they were completely new with only the front and rear axles and associated components transferred from the previous trolley buses as a cost reduction measure with complete replacement of the older chassis and body. The impression implied in the Transport Plan of decrepit old trolley buses overdue for replacement is completely wrong.

The final major factor that was promoted as requiring the trolley buses to cease was the age and cost of the overhead power supply infrastructure. Wellington Electricity, the power supply contractor to NZ Bus (the trolley bus owners) reported directly to the Regional Council (bypassing NZ Bus) that trolley bus operation after 2017 could only be continued if substantial parts of the power supply equipment and underground cables were replaced. Full replacement was estimated at around $52million with an option of replacing only substation equipment at a cost of around $16.5million.

However an independent report by an experienced qualified DC traction engineer identified improvements that could keep the power supply infrastructure up to a standard to keep trolley buses on the road after 2017 for the remaining years of their life (between 2019 and 2024) at a cost of up to only $7.5million. The engineer recommended that the Regional Council commission a detailed report from experienced, qualified DC traction engineers to confirm that the upgrading measures and costs in his report were realistic and provided a creditable option to closure.

Such a report is now needed because of the substantial cost of replacement buses and the opportunity to continue the environmental benefits provided by trolley buses. The extended use of trolleys will cover the period through to the time that acceptable and affordable battery electric buses may become available providing similar environmental levels to those provided by trolley buses.

Replacement of the trolley buses will require the purchase of new buses ranging from $24million for 60 2-axle buses ($400,000 each) through $27million for 60 3-axle buses ($450,000 each) and up to $33million for 60 3-axle double deck buses (estimated $550,000 each). Diesel hybrid buses were proposed as an option but an additional cost of $200,000 per bus would be incurred. The buses will be bought by the contractors and they will have additional financing costs that will be included in the annual contract charge. In addition there is the estimated cost of removing the overhead lines which is around $10million.

The cost of providing the power supply and maintaining the overhead lines has been met each year as a cost to fare payers and ratepayer contributions. Apart from meeting the possible expenditure of up to $7.5million on the power supply over a period of time, no other change to this annual funding method should be needed.

However despite the independent engineer’s report and the Regional Council’s acceptance that the trolley buses’ life is up to 2024, no independent report on the power supply has been sought, as far as I can find. As the optional purchase costs are very high, the lack of any action is inexcusable. Consultants used so far by the Regional Council have not shown any experience in traction power supply.

There are also clear environmental benefits of operating trolley buses compared to both diesel and hybrid buses until suitable, affordable battery electric buses become available, possibly in about 5 years.

Regional Council comment after the Transport Plan was issued implied that the cost of running trolley buses had been an issue. However the only cost raised was the cost of upgrading overhead lines between $3million and $6million per year. No other comment on cost was raised. If trolley bus costs were an issue compared to diesel bus costs it should have been raised then with background information as an issue for public comment and consultation.

In recent weeks I have done several passenger counts at peak hours and have found trolley bus operation to be reliable and very well patronised. Sometimes I have seen passengers specifically waiting to catch a trolley bus, presumably because of the lower noise and vibration without assuming they have a preference due to environmental factors. As I have previously mentioned ,the layout in trolley buses is better for standing loads than the layout in diesel buses.

Rhetorical comment in the Transport Plan on the suitability of trolley buses to operate beyond 2017 has been found to be wanting and the remaining thread against their retention, the condition of traction power supply, has been seriously questioned by the traction engineer’s report. Stalling for time so that it becomes too late for trolleys to continue may be seen to be a tactic but it is not in the interests of fare payers or ratepayers.

A Government Bill to encourage the use of more battery electric vehicles is currently going through Parliament. Trolley buses are electric vehicles already in use giving the benefits sought from the use of new electric vehicles. To get rid of trolley buses would be a backward step for environmental reasons especially as there is likely to be a need to lower transport emissions as a result of the “Paris Agreement” when the Government decides on its requirements to meet NZ’s targets. The waiving of Road User Charges is promoted as one of the ways of encouraging the use of more electric vehicles and this should apply to trolley buses to encourage their ongoing use in Wellington until battery electric buses are practical and affordable.

Mike Flinn was General Manager of Wellington City Transport when it was owned and operated by the Wellington City Council. This is an edited version of part of his supplementary submission to the Regional Council’s Transport Plan.

Read also:
Chris Laidlaw: The official view
Keith Tomlinson: Betrayed and insulted


  1. Ron Oliver, 9. January 2017, 14:06

    After about 84 years of living in Wellington I’ve come around to thinking that when groups of people make decisions it is a matter of who is going to benefit. I have learnt that usually it is higher income groups who benefit the most. ” Qui Bono” I think is the old term used in ancient Rome.
    Another way of putting it is who is going to make the most profit out of this decision making process. I think It can be fairly stated that it will of certainty not be the ratepayer who always foots the bill for everything in this profit making world.

  2. Victor Davie, 9. January 2017, 21:39

    A well researched article. The Wrightspeed prototype bus (I’m told the first in the world) has yet to be seen and driven in public as promised last year. So let’s wait and see it perform going up Brooklyn Hill with a full load on board unassisted by its hybrid combustion engine.

  3. Wellington Commuter, 9. January 2017, 22:35

    This article is compelling, but trolley bus supporters would give their case more credibility if they included some of the negative facts about trolley buses instead of ignoring them to fit their case. One example in this article is the claim that replacing the 60 trolley buses could cost “up to $33million for 60 3-axle double deck buses (estimated $550,000 each)” which is simply not true because of the much greater carrying capacities of the latter. Wikipedia says Wellington has 3 x Designline SLF 39-seat trolleybuses and 56 x Designline SLF 42-seat trolleybuses giving a total seated capacity of 2,469. The double deck buses do each cost more but fewer such buses are needed to replace the capacity provided by the current trolley buses (indeed the main reason for the GWRC considering them is to have fewer buses along the Golden Mile), Therefore the 60 trolley buses could be replaced by just 23 Double Deck buses giving a truer total cost of $12-13million … less than half the cost claimed by Mr Finn.

    Another example is that the extra cost of “of providing the power supply and maintaining the overhead lines” is acknowledged but not properly costed. While the $10million cost of removing the overhead is highlighted, the extra $1million per year saving from not having to operate and maintain the trolley overhead is not mentioned.

  4. Mark, 10. January 2017, 0:20

    Funny how trolley bus technology suddenly becomes exorbitantly and prohibitively expensive, when it’s been easily manageable and cost effective for decades until today. It’s not like diesel or hybrid technologies are suddenly much cheaper either…
    So WHY the rush to dismantle the infrastructure? Last I heard, the network engineers won an international award for upgrading the bus electrical network, but now we have to pre-emptively scrap what we’ve got which seems to work pretty well pretty much all of the time.
    You’re bang on, Ron, someone’s looking to line their pockets at our collective expense again …

  5. Rumpole, 10. January 2017, 10:42

    Double deck buses? Passengers will need to be superbly fit to climb to the top level and to exit. Impatient bus drivers would keep ambulance and ACC busy. And identifying passengers exceeding their cash paid journey difficult too.

  6. Paul Bruce, 10. January 2017, 11:48

    The Councillors were “set up” two years ago, fed with high end substation renewal costs and completely incorrect information on the state of the trolley buses themselves. Expert submitters who challenged the supporting papers were sidelined. The large majority of submitters who commented on the trolleys supported their retention. A number of submitters also argued that they would provide an excellent transition to higher capacity light rail extending along the spine route to the airport.

    A good business case for trolleys remains, with the major part of the overhead wiring renewed, comfortable low floor trolley buses available with 10 to 20 years lifetime left and the cost of any upgrade of the substation network able to be completed within the present 10 year annual maintenance figure.

    A business case would also show the benefits of modernisation of the fleet with lithium ion batteries that could allow off line running where the overhead network was yet to be installed or temporarily out of action, increasing utility further. Trolley buses run with 100% zero emissions, not needing a fossil fuel gas turbo charger as specified for the Wrightspeed conversions. Cities in the northern hemisphere are still expanding their trolley bus networks as the most cost effective electric public transport. We should be conducting a strategic business plan to do the same.

  7. The City is Ours, 10. January 2017, 13:47

    The prospect of losing trolleys in Wellington will also mean the air quality in densely populated areas along the spine to the airport may cause serious health effects on our citizenry, particularly the young and the elderly. Additionally the agreement to hold transport emissions to 2001 levels by 2016 may be breached.

  8. Casey, 10. January 2017, 14:40

    Wellington Commuter has some valid points, but hasn’t provided the operational costs for new diesels or hybrids, including their fuel/maintenance/financing costs either. Both types are substantially more expensive to maintain than trolley buses.

    Another point is that double decker buses won’t fit through Karori, Seatoun, Mt Vic. (bus) tunnels. Replacing single decker buses with double decker ones is a sledge hammer approach as the dwell time at bus stops is substantially higher for the latter type. Bus can not move whilst passengers are using the stairs.

    Replacing 60 single decker buses with 23 double decker ones, as suggested by Wellington Commuter, reduces the capacity to 1800 passengers, with some standing downstairs. Standing upstairs whilst the bus is in motion is too dangerous.

  9. Luke, 10. January 2017, 14:41

    The decision is purely political, Somebody wants Newlands coachlines to be able to run their northern routes thru the city to Island Bay or Miramar.

  10. John Stokes, 11. January 2017, 10:34

    Some say that accountants and economists know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

    I am in tourism in Wellington. Some tourists want to know about our trolley buses – some want to ride on them, just to say ‘been there, done that’. Some tourists see our trolley buses as part of our clean/green image, and are impressed. When I began telling tourists that the trolley buses were to be removed in favour of diesel, you could just feel their bewilderment.

    What is the cost of NOT keeping them?

  11. JCB, 11. January 2017, 15:04

    Funny…. the main reason that I’ve heard is that, while the body and chassis are new, the electric motor was taken out of the old buses and re-configured to work in the new chassis. Hence, old decrepit motor.
    Also only half of the trolley fleet is road-worthy at any one time because of the constant repairs needed.

    I have this on very good authority as I have a number of friends who drive the buses and work on their maintenance.

  12. City Lad, 12. January 2017, 11:20

    Apparently a specialist in Nelson is converting an existing trolley bus to the Wrightspeed mechanism. So the body and chassis aren’t new. Hope he removes advertisements from the windows too.

  13. Marion Leader, 12. January 2017, 12:41

    If Councillors were “set up” two years ago they failed to do their job which starts with asking probing questions on behalf of residents.

  14. Casey, 13. January 2017, 9:05

    City Lad. We ought to be asking where that first conversion is at because it was meant to be on the road for evaluation in October last year. The fact that it isn’t yet being tested in Wellington conditions perhaps points to it having major issues besides inadequate battery capacity. The last thing we ratepayers want to be financing are lemons, and Wrightspeed technology appears to offer such with Wellington’s topography.

    First test will be to see how far it gets up the hill from Lambton Quay on battery operation alone when empty of passengers, let alone when full of passengers cramped in like sardines in a can.

  15. Keith Flinders, 13. January 2017, 16:31

    Marion Leader: It concerns me too that the GWRC is not being operated as the multimillion dollar business it is. A private business would not survive with such lack of financial acumen. The attitude appears for councillors to act on whims, and not fully investigate cost implications of projects.

    The trolley bus removal decision was made without a business plan, and without any costing done for replacement buses. Ratepayers were told in 2014 that trolleys would be replaced with hybrids, then that was changed to replaced with 10% hybrids, rest polluting diesels. Next NZ Bus, who own the trolley buses, came out with the untested Wrightspeed conversion option.

    Whilst NZ Bus own the buses, we ratepayers still pay all operational, maintenance and financing costs, less a part subsidy by NZTA.

    With GWRC owned CentrePort operations in virtual ruin, thus impacting upon any 2016/17 dividend, then all costs need to be re-evaluated to lessen the impost on ratepayers who suffered a rates increase of over three times the average wage increase last year.

    Future increases of that magnitude are not sustainable, no matter how many “extra cups of coffee” they only represent in the minds of many councillors.

  16. Maggie Kennedy, 15. January 2017, 17:57

    I can just imagine a double-decker bus swooping around some of the hair-pin bends on some existing bus routes in Wellington, and teetering over a precipice as it goes. Equally, I can imagine the squeals of frightened passengers! These monolithic vehicles are all very well in basically flat cities like London, but in hilly Wellington? I don’t think so!