Wellington Scoop

Inevitable? Scrapping the trolley buses


A change that Chris Laidlaw said was “inevitable” has been postponed. It’s the decision to scrap all Wellington’s trolley buses, which has now been delayed for six months.

The trolleys were supposed to be scrapped next month, and replaced by new hybrid buses. But we learnt yesterday that the first prototype hybrid hasn’t arrived, so testing hasn’t started.

It was in February last year that Chris Laidlaw said scrapping the trolley buses next month was “inevitable.”

… the trolley bus 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.

He said the hybrid–diesel electric option would be a transitional one, with “at least 10 hybrids being introduced over the next few years” via the contracting system with the bus operators.

This plan now seems less than certain. Yesterday’s DomPost report quotes NZ Bus chief executive Zane Fulljames as saying it hasn’t yet decided whether to buy the hybrid buses – the company will decide during the testing process (which was supposed to have started last October.)

A year ago, the bybrid bus deal was announced as a $US30m agreement, though the official announcement admitted that the new technology had not yet been used for passenger transport.

But now, if the hybrids aren’t bought, will the trolley buses still be scrapped – and replaced by more diesels?

Opposition to scrapping the trolley buses has been substantial and well researched.

Mike Flinn: Why trolley buses shouldn’t be withdrawn this year
Keith Tomlinson: Betrayed and insulted by trolley bus decision
Allan Neilson: Cheaper to keep them than scrap them
Paul Bruce and Sue Kedgley: Diesels, a public health risk

The regional council has chosen to ignore all these arguments, in favour of getting rid of the trolley buses.

Now, however, with a six month extension to the death sentence, and uncertainty about whether or not the hybrids will pass their tests on Wellington streets, the regional council has a ready-made opportunity to reconsider its decision.

New operators promise more environmentally friendly bus fleet (but not electric)


  1. luke, 4. May 2017, 11:00

    I’m seeing more and more ratty-looking ex Auckland buses with Metlink stickers plastered over the metrolink/wakapacific colours. No doubt noisier and fumier than the trolleys.

  2. Casey, 4. May 2017, 17:45

    Ditto Luke. An all-silver one this afternoon emerging from the shade of a bus stop into sunlight was hard to see. Yellow buses are hard to miss seeing, but the intention is to repaint them a sickly pea green colour. More money wasted.

    By Christmas, Wellington should have an all old diesel fleet. Well done GWRC, not. Overseas cities are moving as fast as they can to remove diesel buses and cars because of the extreme health risk from the fumes they emit. 120 diesel buses per hour through the CBD at peak times is irresponsible and must be stopped. Anyone who thinks a hybrid is a clean option ought to read up on the issues with them and see how many now run on fossil fuel only.

    Running a multi-million dollar a year business by a committee of inexperienced people gives the results we are seeing. Their CentrePort operation had over 500 people working for three years in a building deemed to be unsafe after the 2013 earthquakes. Scrapping the GWRC instead of the trolley buses would make far more sense.

  3. Casey, 4. May 2017, 17:59

    “But we learnt yesterday that the first prototype hybrid hasn’t arrived, so testing hasn’t started.”

    Buses are in Newlands. Conversion of the first bus started 12 months ago and isn’t operational. Conversion of 2nd bus started a couple of months ago and isn’t operational. Not a case of not having arrived, a case of not been able to make them work. Lemons ?

  4. Kevin Morris, 5. May 2017, 6:37

    Is it finally beginning to dawn that abandoning environmentally friendly trolleybuses and replacing them with polluting diesel or even diesel electric buses is utter folly? I hope so!

  5. Libby Grant, 5. May 2017, 7:37

    Why? Why? Why? are GWRC still making such stupid decisions? Replacing electric trolley buses with anything other than zero carbon emissions, non-polluting buses is insane!!! Diesel is dirty, it is polluting and contributes to transport related air pollution which kills people and makes people sick. It is also noisy and there is a wealth of evidence on how traffic noise contributes to ill health. I walk to work at Boulcott Street every morning and every morning I am assaulted by the noise of diesel buses at the Mercer St Willis St intersection. It also stinks. What do we have to do, to say, to our council, GWRC to wake them up to the urgent need to provide an excellent public transport system that enhances life in our best little city? It’s an opportunity for them to show vision and guts and get it right!

  6. Kerry, 5. May 2017, 10:29

    I am afraid it is going to need institutional change

  7. Keith Flinders, 5. May 2017, 10:35

    As Casey commented, the GWRC CentrePort operation continued to let 500 people occupy one of their buildings for three years following the 2013 earthquake after its structural integrity issues were known. On that basis, health issues of ratepayers are not a priority to the GWRC, and so adding yet more cancer causing particulate matter to the atmosphere is irrelevant to them.

    I spent two days in Auckland last week trying for myself their transport systems. I can report that even though most of the bus fleet is very modern, the external noise is an insult to one’s ears. I am hard of hearing so the noise level will be even worse for those with full hearing. Internally the new buses are as noisy as most Wellington diesel buses. Give me a trolley bus option any day.

  8. Keith Flinders, 5. May 2017, 10:44

    Kerry. Try going to a GWRC meeting and you might conclude that you are in an institution. One that is hopelessly out of touch for the present era.

  9. Wgtn Regional Council, 5. May 2017, 10:50

    The decommissioning of the trolley buses will be completed in October this year.

    Development and testing continues by NZ Bus on the development of a plug-in range-extended electric bus that will re-use and refurbish the trolley bus fleet.

    GWRC and NZ Bus have detailed transition plans in place to ensure that bus services continue to run during the transition from trolley buses to the new converted fleet, which may require the use of diesel buses until the conversion programme is complete.

  10. greg, 5. May 2017, 12:24

    Scrapping a fully electric and zero emission bus system for the sake of an untried and untested hybrid option is a disgrace. The fact that the Regional Council has repeatedly ignored all advice on this and doesn’t seem to be aware of the benefits that tried and tested trolleybus operation around the world can offer is a sign of how out of touch and ignorant it is. I look forward to history viewing the Regional Council in the same light as the fools who got rid of Wellington’s trams.

  11. Neil Douglas, 5. May 2017, 15:29

    Overseas cities are banning diesel cars from city centres, with some banning diesel buses too. Not here in Wellington with GWRC making a hasty decision to scrap the electric trolley buses before battery buses are even proven to work.
    Air pollution tests need to be conducted on Lambton Quay, Willis, Manners Mall and C. Place as a matter of urgency to determine the level of noxious bus emissions during the morning and evening peaks.

  12. Glen Smith, 7. May 2017, 10:08

    I have struggled with the pro and cons of trolley buses. In the age of modern batteries and wireless highways, buses connected to wires (that limit route flexibility) by poles (that seem to limit speed and often fall off) appear to be ‘old’ technology whose demise, as Chris Laidlaw says, would at first glance seem inevitable. Spending large sums to prolong their life appears, superficially, illogical.

    But new technology is not always better than old and powering buses by battery has major problems including battery cost and lifespan, capacity (limiting distance), weight (limiting passenger numbers), power drawdown (limiting performance at load or on hills), downtime (while charging), availability of lithium (the current preferred technology) and environmental degradation associated with lithium extraction. As Neil Douglas says, battery buses have not yet been proven to work in Wellington. The fact that the ‘short term’ plan is for diesel is an admission of this. The suspicion is that, with 228 new diesel buses planned, ‘short term’ will turn into ‘diesel forever’.

    Diesel buses are nasty things. They burn fossil fuels promoting climate change (which the Regional Council don’t have to pay for…..yet). And they have major adverse health effects. Diesel exhaust is a Group 1 carcinogen, which causes lung cancer and has a positive association with bladder cancer. It contains group 1 carcinogens (arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, cadmium, benzo(a)pyrene), group 2 carcinogens (acetaldehyde, naphalene, nickel, 1,3 butadiene, styrene) and group 3 carcinogens (acrolein, aniline, fluoranthene, toluene, xylene). Otago University Researchers in 2012 (http://www.hapinz.org.nz/HAPINZ%20Update_Vol%201%20Summary%20Report.pdf) estimated man made air pollution caused 1100 premature deaths per year, 700 additional hospital admissions, and 1.9 million restricted activity days. The estimated cost was 1.1 billion or $421 per person (which again the Regional Council don’t have to pay for).

    Before we subject downtown pedestrians to dense diesel bus fumes forever, we should be sure we have looked at all other options very very carefully especially given that we have a functional pollution-free fully-electric system. It is not clear that the Regional Council has done this. I cannot see that they have adequately investigated the option of ‘off wire’ trolley buses which can automatically come off the supplying electrical wires using pneumatically retractable poles and finish journeys (and allowing much greater flexibility) using a much smaller battery capacity which is charged while ‘on wire’. This dual system is used in several cities overseas and overcomes a large number of the problems of both trolley and battery buses.

    It is also not clear that thought has been given to how the trolley infrastructure might be integrated into an overall transport plan. One of the major arguments for removal is the cost of replacing aging (but still functional) substations and across town cabling that supplies 500V DC power (but which could be increased to 750V). However the current N2A investigation may well (if they do their job properly) decide on the logical option of across-town rail which would require (you guessed it) electrical substations supplying likely 750v DC power via across town cables. The option is to put in place electrical infrastructure to supply buses now which could be transferred to rail OR electrical infrastructure that will supply both.

    I have a lot of respect for a number of the Regional Councillors but, a bit like BRT, I am not convinced they have done their homework completely and the matter needs to be revisited and reconsidered before the current plan becomes inevitable.

  13. Piglet, 7. May 2017, 12:14

    Diesel buses are noisy and their emissions are dirty. I walk to work and find the queues of diesel bus exhaust pipes belching out carcinogenic fumes an unnecessary health hazard. I really despair with GWRC and the pusillanimous WCC (who owns the overhead wires).

    Our trolley bus system is something to be proud of and market to the world. If we can’t have LRT (electric steel wheel fixed routes) because it’s too expensive then investing in our trolley bus network (electric rubber wheel fixed routes) surely is a no brainer!

    Wellington is the only city in the Southern Hemisphere where trolleys remain. Many Aussie cities are investing a billion + each in LRT. This seems to be a bill too high for GWRC. So why not $200k for a spankling efficient and environmentally attractive trolley bus network? Like enlightened Melbourne which was the only city to retain its trams, Wellington should be similarly prescient and retain and enhance its trolley bus system.

  14. Passenger, 10. May 2017, 21:23

    I’m told it was Fran Wilde who detested the trolley buses and initiated their demise, seemingly assisted by Paul Swain and a council officer. At a “Sustainable” Transport Committee meeting in February, Paul Bruce asked that the business case for keeping the trolley buses be done, as up to then it hadn’t been done and still hasn’t. Cr. McKinnon asked Paul “are you saying that councillors were deliberately mis-led about the condition of the trolley buses and their infrastructure ?” To which Paul agreed.

  15. Glen Smith, 12. May 2017, 8:26

    The apparent lack of any rigorous analysis/business case for trolley is a scandal. The European Trolley Project outlines a straightforward and rigorous way of analysing the cost/benefit of trolley vs diesel, and concludes that, even without existing infrastructure, trolley is cheaper than diesel if a route has buses more than every 5 minutes (which the Golden Mile certainly does) and if there are no infrastructure costs (which in Wellington would be minimal) that trolley is cheaper than diesel if buses run more than every 10 minutes. We would expect a professional organisation such as the GWRC to undertake such analysis (and if they have could they please provide the details). If they haven’t undertaken such comprehensive analysis then they can only be seen as incompetent.

  16. Glen Smith, 13. May 2017, 22:49

    The Trolley vs Diesel bus analysis referenced above (correct link now added) notes that trolley is likely to be cheaper and preferable to diesel when
    -zero-emission or low-emission electrical energy is available
    – the electrical energy is cheap, compared with petrol;
    – there is higher willingness-to-pay for lower emissions
    – local conditions are favourable, for example by high share of sloping routes;
    – there are some sunk costs of infrastructure or vehicles.
    Hmmmm. Sounds like they are describing Wellington. And yet the Regional Council has apparently decided to scrap the trolleys without undertaking this sort of thorough analysis (still waiting for them to present it if they have). Neil Douglas, as a transport enonomist are you able to do this analysis? (it is an embarrassing indictment of the lack of professionalism of the Regional Council that I am having to ask a member of the lay public if they can do this but the Council appear incapable of doing their job properly).

  17. Mark, 5. June 2017, 22:15

    The bigger the change, the harder it is to change back. We should be VERY careful about dismantling the trolley network. The engineers win international awards for their innovations, and we have the technology installed, in place, and perfectly functional. New electrical technologies (e.g. fast charging topups at bus stops) and battery technologies promise even better, but diesel doesn’t offer any future potential improvements – just more fumes.

    We dismantled the tram network, and we’re still regretting it. Cities around the world are opting for more LRT and public options, ditching diesel and mechanics for electrics and renewables. NZ can throw out its “green” image if we go for diesels.

  18. Keith Flinders, 7. June 2017, 16:54

    The following arrived in my inbox at the weekend and illustrates people power can win over politicians who won’t listen. Why aren’t we doing the same before the trolley bus infrastructure gets demolished at a cost of $10 million to ratepayers ?

    Trolley buses in Romania
    “The closure of the trolleybus system on 31 March 2017 caused intensive political troubles and protests. On 25.April 2017 the board of the trolleybus company decided to follow the political thoughts and to reintroduce trolleybuses – for a first step only for peak hours – on 15.June 2017. Between closure and reopening of the system the time was used to repair the overhead system. One can only wish that the city of Piatra Neamt now comes clear with the worth of a trolleybus system !”

    Meanwhile the GWRC would have us believe we are getting electric buses next year when Tranzit take over some city routes, but nowhere do Tranzit confirm this. Wrightspeed conversions are on track according to GWRC Transport Manager Hastie, but none have been seen on the road, now 7 months since the first were meant to be.

    Meanwhile the inventive Chinese have come up with this trackless tram/train. https://www.arynews.tv/en/china-unveils-track-less-train-runs-virtual-railways/

    which could be powered on uphill runs by the trolley bus infrastructure, battery elsewhere.

  19. Kristian Jendesen, 13. August 2017, 1:48

    Worst thing my town (more like a city, conjoined with Poole and Christchurch UK) did was to get rid of our extensive trolleybus system in the 1960s. Absolutely perfect option now with the concern over diesel pollution. I think you need to vote out your council!g