Wellington Scoop

Mixed electrical messages

Electric buses next year? There was nothing about this in either of last week’s announcements about changes to bus contracts. But we did get this message in two comments sent to Wellington.Scoop from Regional Council chair Chris Laidlaw.

Here’s what he wrote on Friday:

Tranzit’s bid means a guarantee of a very substantial reduction of gross emissions in the short run, even with the withdrawal of the trolleybuses, and a commitment to the introduction of full electric buses beginning next year. That is why they are the preferred tender. It’s as simple as that.

And on the same day:

We are very impressed with Tranzit’s credentials not the least of which is their commitment to introducing full electric buses next year to coincide with the introduction of new routes and integrated ticketing.

We’ve since asked him to provide evidence of a decision to introduce electric buses next year. But as yet there’s been no reply.

When you look at last week’s announcements about new bus contracts, the Tranzit plan is described as building 228 new buses, all of them diesel though with Euro 6 certification, the highest global emissions standard. But not a word about electric buses. The Regional Council statement does mention the “electric” word, but not as anything definite:

Cr Laidlaw said we are likely to see the introduction of electric buses to Wellington city, further improving environmental benefits.

When? How? There’s no information.

Then there’s the mystery of the hybrid WrightSpeed engines, which we had been told would be installed in the trolley buses when they were taken out of service next month. But something is amiss. The trolley bus scrapping has been delayed for six months. NZ Bus chief executive Zane Fulljames is saying his company hasn’t yet decided whether to buy the hybrids – it will decide during the testing process (which was supposed to have started last October.)

In the DomPost, Chris Laidlaw said that diesel buses were a likely solution in the interim period, and the extension would provide “a bit more breathing space.” (An unfortunate choice of words, in the context of diesel fumes.) But there was no certainty about the hydrid buses. “All of us are awaiting the outcome of the testing with some interest. I hope it’s successful.”

The (vague) official version is that “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.”

But Keith Flinders says

Wrightspeed is hybrid technology and after 12 months since the first trolley bus conversion started it hasn’t been on trial yet. One might conclude that the GWRC is being misled on the suitability for this technology given Wellington’s terrain, and alas GWRC officers don’t have the engineering knowledge to decide either way.

And on Saturday, a reader called Casey told us

Unconfirmed reports have the first conversion, started 12 months ago, as having been abandoned, and the second conversion not completed either. If you thought the Tranzit bus going up Ngauranga Gorge was slow, then I shudder to think of the speed of a Wrightspeed trying to get up Bowen Street on its 40 kW/hr battery.

And later

the incomplete Wrightspeed is in a shed in Newlands, as is the second attempt to get a bus operational and at last report wasn’t.

Then yesterday:

And today, from Brent Efford:

When two trolleybuses were taken out of service for Wrightspeed conversion last year, we were told that the prototype conversions would be on the road for testing LAST November! So how Wayne Hastie, one of the GWRC’s top spinners, can claim they are “running to schedule” beats me. They don’t seem to be running at all, and the evasion – “you will have to ask NZ Bus about that” by Mr Wright, when questioned about progress at his promotional presentation at the car show at Queens Wharf recently – only heightens the suspicions. Particularly when he refused to answer any follow-up questions.

When the Wrightspeed deal was announced a year ago, it was described as something definite, with no ifs or buts.

NZ Bus will receive its first Wrightspeed powertrains by mid-2016, and begin the process of fitting and testing immediately, with a view to having a first electric-powered bus on the road by the last quarter of the year.

It didn’t happen.

It’s time for NZ Bus and the Regional Council to stop being evasive, and to tell us what’s going on (or not) with the new technology.


  1. CPH, 9. May 2017, 10:42

    Remember that Chris Laidlaw is presiding over a regional council that hasn’t even been able to get integrated ticketing for Wellington’s public transport working – something that’s been widespread in the rest of the world for 50+ years, and which seems to have been promised by GWRC for just about as long. The idea that this same inept council can lead the world with electric buses is just laughable.

  2. luke, 9. May 2017, 10:56

    likewise the petone ngauramga cycleway has has been overdue since 2006, typical of non roading projects.

  3. Trevor, 9. May 2017, 10:58

    Very good journalism. Keep up the good work.

  4. Daran Ponter, 9. May 2017, 20:32

    Good article. Some notes:

    – The contract with Tranzit is for an all diesel fllet, but GWRC has initiated a separate discussion with Tranzit about deploying a fleet of 100% battery powered buses – which would replace some of the diesels. There is not much detail on this until the discussions get underway – can say though that the battery buses would come at additional cost.

    – The Wrightspeed project is a 100% NZ Bus initiative. The GWRC is of course very interested in the technology and the possibility of converting the trolley fleet to the Wrightspeed technology. But I can tell you that councillors have not been kept appraised of developments, if indeed there have been any in recent months.

    Councillor Kedgley is going hoarse asking for updates. It is difficult to understand whether this is intransigence on the part of Go Wellington or a sign of some sort of catastrophic failure of the technology or the reality of the economics of the proposition.- either way I expect better of Go Wellington in keeping us all more informed.

  5. KB, 9. May 2017, 21:37

    Chinese companies sold 117,000 electric buses last year – this isn’t rocket science. Why they decided to use a much more expensive company with an unproven technology is beyond commonsense. Heads should roll.

  6. Glen Smith, 9. May 2017, 21:37

    The more reading I do, the less competent the GWRC’s analysis and current decision looks. The end goal, if not short term then medium term, should be a fully electric, fossil-fuel and pollution free network. The assumption seems to be that battery technology will supply this. However GWRC’s own advice from Jacobs places severe doubts on this. They report that electric buses are 2-5 times the cost of diesel, with batteries lasting just 2-5 years, are likely limited to a single shift, weigh 21-25% more (2.5 t for a 300kWh battery) producing ‘quite substantial impacts on passenger carrying capacity’ ( for a 65 person bus ‘reduction could be between 11 and 42 people’), require expensive recharging facilities (‘capital cost closely guarded’) which requires getting ‘several megawatts of power to the depot’ (costing ‘1-2 m pa excluding energy costs’). Even then there is no guarantee the vehicles will get up Wellington hills. With the GWRC’s track record, electric buses are clearly in the ‘never going to happen’ basket and it will be diesels indefinitely.

    The option that has been given only brief lip service is ‘off wire trolleys’ (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AY91Lctl8Fw for an example of pole raising/ lowering. This is a trolley/ diesel combination but trolley/ battery would be more logical ). Our existing network would be a ‘core’ wired network supporting ‘off wire’ extensions from a variety of pole-raising/ lowering locations. Existing trolleys could be retrofitted with batteries and the contract with Tranzit renegotiated to specify the supply of 228 dual trolley/battery buses rather than diesel buses. The result would be a truly flexible/ resilient all electric network within only a few years.

    In reply to the question “‘Could the buses be altered so that they are battery power when off the wires, and recharge the batteries whilst on the wire, making them more flexible?” the Jacobs report replied “Yes, this could be done”. The only identified barrier was that “It would necessitate upgrading the power supply system”. They felt this would be ‘unlikely to prove to be cost effective’ without giving any supporting evidence. In contrast Allan Neilson, an experienced former senior electrical engineer with KiwiRail, has given good evidence it would be cheaper to keep the trolleys than scrap them. And Mike Flinn, former General Manager of Wellington City Transport, concluded that ‘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’.

    The current decision may well mark a critical junction between two possible futures. One with only noisy, climate change inducing, gas belching diesel buses indefinitely; and the other with a fully electric, fossil fuel and pollution free network. And our politicians (some of whom I unfortunately voted for) have chosen the former, not apparently based on any rigorous analysis or public opinion but on their own predetermined biased views.

  7. Roland, 10. May 2017, 0:14

    What a mess! Battery technology to drive a bus to the same performance all day as a trolleybus does not, at the moment, exist. So why plan with so many unknowns? Would it not be better to keep the trolleys and experiment with batteries.

    Many European cities are developing trolleybuses with batteries – the idea being that the trolleybus charges its batteries whilst under the wires and then can run in battery mode of wire. This has the potential to expand trolleybus routes and/or eliminate wiring in sensitive areas.

    Good article – great story!

  8. Keith Flinders, 10. May 2017, 11:21

    Not forgetting that most of the existing trolley fleet has batteries, albeit likely not of a capacity to consider them suitable for extended off wire use. These batteries are likely past best by date now, and of older technology, but some are functioning as a few weeks ago I observed a trolley bus with its poles down driving along Whitmore Street where there are no overhead wires. It turned into Lambton Quay and then went to the railway station terminus still off the wires.

  9. Keith Flinders, 10. May 2017, 11:49

    Daran. A battery-only bus costs currently four times that of a single decker diesel for relatively flat terrain operating conditions. A 500 kW/hr battery is needed, as opposed to the 40 kW/hr proposed for Wrightspeed conversions. Its batteries will need to be replaced every 4 years, perhaps sooner, and at a cost equaling half the cost of the bus.

    On this basis, future discussions about battery buses with Tranzit may well take place but they will result in nothing but talk and no action. Chris Laidlaw wrote that electric buses will be introduced from next year. I don’t believe this to be the case.

  10. Cr Daran Ponter, 10. May 2017, 12:23

    Hi Keith, I am not going to defend the trolley bus decision, because as you know I favour the retention of the trolleys. But there are only three regional councillors of this view – frustrating.

    Yes, I am aware of the high cost of battery buses and for this reason you may be right – nothing may eventuate. Will need to give the discussion a chance to expose options and costs before we understand the full realities.

  11. Libby Grant, 11. May 2017, 6:58

    I am really sick of hearing about cost cost cost when the methodology for costing clearly does not take externalities into account. Externalities such as: cost to the environment of dirty diesel, increased toxic air pollution which kills and damages people, noise (I have to endure this every morning on my walk to work), which is not only unpleasant but harmful to health and they stink.
    It’s our council, with people we have elected because we believed they would do the best job for us, and it’s our money!! So they need to start taking their responsibility to us seriously and introduce an electric, zero emissions, pollution free and quiet bus fleet: it’s good for our city and for us and it’s what we want to pay for!!

  12. Brent Efford, 11. May 2017, 11:21

    Hooray for Libby! I believe that much of the issue is around the deliberate minimising of PT infrastructure investment in order to leave more for building highways – or …”clear the way for motorway spending.” as urban sustainability guru Prof Peter Newman once said of the PT Spine Study. This applies even when PT infrastructure, like light rail, will actually cost less than the equivalent motorways.
    Much of the problem lies with the poor quality of the regional council, dominated by outer-urban councilors with little urbanist environmental consciousness – or conscience – whose dominant political obsession is ‘four lanes to the planes’.
    What we need is an independent regional transit authority tasked only with public transport (100% electric ASAP) and promoting this objective with the same determination and zealotry that NZTA, and its GWRC poodle, pursue motorways.

  13. Rich, 29. May 2017, 16:52

    There’s also the matter of recharging – I heard from electricity industry sources that the power infrastructure into Kilbirnie (e.g. 33kV line) is pretty much at capacity. So it probably won’t take a megawatt load and thus there’ll need to be an upgrade – but I’ve heard of no plans to do this?