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The Wellington Regional Council intends that trolley buses will be withdrawn this year, regardless of the fact that they could continue in service till between 2019 and 2024.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