Wellington Scoop

Why there’s no reason for getting rid of the trolley buses this year


by Mike Flinn
We are now in the last weeks of trolleybus operation in Wellington, a situation that the Greater Wellington Regional Council was working towards before 2014.

The aim to stop trolleybus operation came about before the 2014 Draft Transport Plan was issued when the GWRC (and no doubt the Transport Agency which provides Government transport subsidies) realised that Go Wellington, the owner and operator of Wellington trolleybuses, would have a competitive advantage if new contracts (called PTOM contracts) were to be offered for trolleybus services within Wellington City.

Consequently, the 2014 Draft Transport Plan announced that trolleybus services were to stop in 2017, with the section on trolleybuses giving a very unbalanced opinion of these services and giving the two main reasons as:

the old age and condition of the trolleybuses and
the life expired condition of the Direct Current Power Supply ($50 million to replace).

The Draft Plan is issued for consultation purposes, seeking feedback from the public. Submitters told the GWRC that the trolleybuses were not old (built between 2007 and 2009) and had years of life left in them after 2017.

In the final 2014 Transport Plan, the GWRC conceded that there was 5 to 10 years life left in the buses by including an additional sentence. But they left the original criticisms in place. After paying for the trolleybuses for 7 years, GWRC should have been well aware of the age and condition of these buses but this misinformation was part of the aim of getting rid of them.

The power supply claim was more of a technical issue on which most submitters had no knowledge and it was on this sole remaining main point that the GWRC resolved in 2014 to get rid of the trolleybuses in 2017.

This however changed in 2016 when a technical report from an experienced DC traction power engineer explained how it would be economically possible to extend the life of the power supply equipment to provide a reliable supply for the remaining life of the trolleybuses. This report has been ignored by the GWRC.

If this had been done, the trolleybuses could have had a full service life. Progress on developing reliable and affordable battery electric buses is slow and it’s anticipated that it’ll be at least 5 years (ie 2021) before this might happen. Battery electric buses when adequately developed and affordable will be the only buses able to provide a low emission equivalent to trolleybuses. But their development to an acceptable and viable level is still years away.

Report to Regional Council March 2005

Recently I obtained a copy of the March 2005 Report to the Regional Council advising that Land Transport NZ (LTNZ – predecessor to the Transport Agency) had approved the “upgrading” of Wellington trolleybuses and would contribute towards the upgrade as well as provide subsidy towards their operation for a 10 year term (from 2007). The Report recommended that GWRC go ahead with the upgrade in conjunction with LTNZ, recognising that there were advantages through :

Local health effects, lower noise and no emissions (nitrous oxides and particles) especially in the CBD and
National Environmental effects, no greenhouse gases (CO2) and
Energy Efficiency, recognised that electric motors were more efficient than diesel motors and
Financial Benefit, passenger preference for trolleybuses over diesel buses will give some unquantifiable financial benefit and
New equipment on the trolleybuses intended to achieve a 50% reduction in dewirements.

In addition, Cabinet had supported the upgrade work to maintain the public transport levels of service in order to retain mode share between cars and buses as a priority for investment. An overall subsidy of $4 million per year for trolleybuses was anticipated to be shared between LTNZ and ratepayers.

This information was not provided in the 2014 Draft Transport Plan, though it was still relevant to the future of trolleybuses. Overall the Draft Plan’s information on trolleybuses was inadequate, being both inaccurate and lacking in relevant background information not only for the potential submitters but also for regional councillors making the decision.

GWRC attitude towards the trolleybuses

GWRC failed to realise that the “upgrade” essentially resulted in a new bus because to be acceptable in 2007 it had to have a low-floor accessible section and the electric motor was moved to the now customary rear placement. A rear third axle was needed which allowed a capacity increase to nearly 70 passengers. To keep the original cost down, some components were transferred from the previous trolleybuses including the electric motor (which was rewired), axles and steering gear. The effect of this was to potentially shorten the usual trolleybus life of up to 20 years.

GWRC has consistently stuck to its belief of a 10 year life to fit in with its need or determination to have a clean sheet for the PTOM contracts it issued in 2017. Now the PTOM contracts have been allocated it has set a closing date of 31 October for trolleybus operation – without any clear operational, technical or financial reasons for doing so.

The trolleybuses are still available and should be used on all routes until June 2018 and on Go Wellington operated routes such as Karori Park to Miramar/Seatoun and Wellington Station to Lyall Bay for the term of their direct operating contract, for which up to 40 trolleybuses could be needed.

Budgets for the 2017/18 year should cover the operating costs of full trolleybus operations until June 2018. This means that the demolition of the overhead lines should be deferred saving initially over $10 million. There is an urgent need for a programmed development for trolleybuses and associated equipment for a minimum of a 5 year period by GWRC, NZ Bus, Overhead Lines and Power Supply contractors to properly plan through this period.

Replacement of trolleybuses by surplus diesel buses from Auckland is completely unnecessary and unwarranted, resulting in much higher emissions. This includes cancer linked nitrous oxide and particle emissions especially within the CBD and increases in greenhouse emissions (CO2) which the NZ Government has promised to reduce. Trolleybuses emit neither of these gases.

GWRC bus replacement choices

Having decided to get rid of trolleybuses, GWRC has come up with various replacement options none of which are suitable at this time.

Firstly, in 2014 it announced that diesel hybrid buses would be bought. But once it properly checked on the situation in NZ and found that they were not viable, this option was dropped. The next type on the wish list has been to get double deckers into service and has required its new contractor to order 40 diesel powered versions for service in 2018.

In August and September 2016 I took peak hour passenger counts on several routes including Island Bay and Johnsonville (Route A in the Plan) on two occasions and the peak hour patronage fell well short of the level needed to justify double deck buses. This is the first basic test to establish need in order to justify them and it has failed.

GWRC claims that these buses will help reduce congestion in the CBD but higher loadings on each bus resulting from its proposed 2018 route changes will only extend the dwell time at each stop and will not reduce travel times. There are other less expensive alternatives to achieve this which should be done first. These double deck buses are currently unnecessary and should be moved elsewhere.

Battery Electric buses

The latest announcement is that 10 battery electric double deck buses will be bought in 2018. This can only be greeted with incredulity given the situation with battery electric bus development. Battery Electric buses are still mainly in use in small numbers, many as prototypes or development vehicles, often on carefully chosen routes and in most cases the purchase cost is supported by government grants. Battery costs are still high (for example diesel hybrid battery costs have been quoted at $70,000 each) and as battery life is not yet determined the warranty period of 5 years is the only certainty. Current knowledge is that several expensive battery replacements will be needed through a bus life.

There are several versions of batteries in trials using various elements and there are at least 3 recharging methods in use such as plug recharging, inductive charging through a plate in the ground and overhead charging using a pantograph lowered from a gantry. Operational options range from large batteries for all day operation which are recharged overnight, through to smaller batteries recharged at points during the day and also sometimes overnight. The weight of larger batteries can reduce passenger capacity to meet road weight limits while the buses with smaller batteries require down time for recharging and this may require more buses overall. All these variations are being trialled in various locations overseas with no clear options being favoured so far.

Information on the component suppliers of the 10 proposed buses indicates that no existing buses in use have the same mix of components, so the first bus will be a prototype with a long proving period before service acceptance and the other 9 will be development vehicles which invariably have a shorter life. These buses will be very expensive ($900,000 each (?) with charging facilities on top) and the prices will not come down until volume production increases which looks to be several years away.

Technical training of staff in this changing situation will also influence the ability to achieve future reliable performance.

It also must be recognised that Wellington is half a world away from suppliers and any faulty components are likely to take some time to replace or manufacture unless the bus components are part of a large volume output.

There can be no justification for ordering any battery electric buses now. Even the UK in mid-2017 had only 170 battery electric buses operating, of which only 5 were double deck out of over 20,000 buses in the country. London has the largest size single deck battery electric fleet of 51, entering service in late 2016. The remainder are scattered around in smaller numbers and even Nottingham, which has been one if the larger users, has now turned to gas buses (CNG) for larger size low emission buses. Government subsidies, uncertainty of battery life and cost and also the need for more experience of recharging options, are the factors influencing the slow introduction of battery electric buses in the UK.

Savings through not operating double decker buses (both diesel and battery electric) could be used to support continuance of trolley bus operations.

GWRC Electric bus policy

GWRC has dreamed up a policy to be the first in NZ to have an all-electric low pollution fleet. This aim is quite inappropriate because bus age, condition and finance should determine bus replacement timing, and not a competition to be first. Its premature excursion into battery electrics as its first steps towards this policy completely disregards the current realities of the market. There is no place for Wellington farepayers or ratepayers to fund expensive battery electric bus development through their contribution of over 75% towards annual operating costs.


Retention of trolleybus operation for five years or so is at present the most practical and affordable option to continue low emission services while battery electric buses are further developed.

Diesel double deck buses and battery electric double deck buses are not currently justified and savings through not operating them should be used to continue trolleybus operation in the meantime.

Mike Flinn was Deputy General Manager of Wellington City Transport from 1985 to 1990


  1. Ian Shearer, 13. October 2017, 13:22

    Well said Mike. So how do we stop this vandalism from destroying the remainder of our all electric public transport assets?

    Clearly this is one case where a new Government could call for an immediate halt to the removal of the overhead lines and for a rapid engineering review of the evidence. The Greens and NZ First policies seem strongly supportive of electric public transport. Will Labour have the guts to call a halt now?

  2. Marion Leader, 13. October 2017, 13:47

    If the Greens were serious about the environment and not so obsessed with social issues they would already have become part of a government which would be influencing the retention of the trolley buses.
    Labour can safely take care of the social issues.

  3. Stop Trexit, 13. October 2017, 14:14

    Logic has never had anything to do with the trolley bus decision. It’s a simple power grab by the ever expanding GWRC bureaucracy. By axing the trolleys, the route monopolies of NZBus were ended.

    GWRC is also reducing WCC’s ‘power’ in public transport by getting rid of the overhead wiring. GWRC decided to do this knowing that Mayor Celia Wade Brown followed by Justin Lester would do absolutely positively nothing.

  4. Adam, 13. October 2017, 14:32

    “Battery Electric buses are still mainly in use in small numbers, many as prototypes or development vehicles, often on carefully chosen routes and in most cases the purchase cost is supported by government grants.”

    Yes, but the above is a subjective statement. Please quantify ‘small’. In fact, one could argue quite the opposite (using figures to back up the argument)

    Full report, actual numbers http://zeeus.eu/uploads/publications/documents/zeeus-ebus-report-internet.pdf

    Let us move on and look into the future. These dinosaurs need to go.

  5. Pat, 13. October 2017, 14:38

    “Say one thing do the opposite” that is politics today and it’s neither acceptable nor believable. The faux Greens just use the environment and a few trending social issues as a political platform for votes. They are as about as green as the diesel exhaust fumes in the WCC fireworks pollution long term plan .

  6. Peter Rendall, 13. October 2017, 16:38

    Chairman Laidlaw and his staff refer to trolleys as obsolete technology, it would be better to refer to it a proven technology. Battery buses and fuel cell buses are unproven technology. China has had the largest takeup of battery buses due largely to massive government subsidies to try to improve air quality. However in a number of cities trolley buses are being reinstated due to problems with the battery buses. Many new Chinese trolleys have battery packs that allow them to travel reasonable distances off wire… eg across parts of Beijing. If Greater Wgtn was serious about having environmentally effective transport, it could have purchased the trolleybus fleet from NZ Bus and tendered their operation in the same way it purchased the electric trains and employs a contractor to run them.

  7. Neil Douglas, 13. October 2017, 16:51

    Hey Pat, Sue Kedgley and Paul Bruce were Green GWRC councillors and they were two of only three GWRC councillors to vote to keep our trolleys. Those who effectively voted to axe the trolleys were independents or non Green party members so it’s these people you should be critical of.

    One issue is letting Kapiti, Porirua, Hutt and Wairarapa councillors decide the future of a Wellington City asset. Why should they care about the health of Wellington city residents? City assets should be the responsibility of Wellington City Council.

    It’s probably too late to save the trolleys, but this poor decision is emblematic of why a Transport Board should be recreated to replace the GWRC (as it was before 1990). We could then have people like Mike Flinn in charge of Wellington city buses with decisions on bus fleet, bus stops, frequencies, fares made by locals for locals.

  8. Conn G, 13. October 2017, 19:59

    I agree with the comments and Mike Flinn’s appreciated detailed report and analysis regarding the Wellington trolleybuses. This decision before 2014 was to simplify the tendering process without trolleybuses. How can a cheap diesel bus provider give Wellington the necessary 21st Century public transport service it requires?

  9. Glen Smith, 14. October 2017, 10:12

    Adam. Have you actually objectively examined the reports that you claim show trolleys are ‘dinosaurs’? These reports cover all electric bus systems including new and expanding trolley and hybrid trolley systems. Most overseas cities of course don’t have existing trolley networks which makes the barrier for trolleys a lot higher than here in Wellington.
    One city that does is Lublin (pages 53-54 in the second report you cite) which provides insight into which electric system would best suit Wellington. The main operator runs 226 buses and 110 trolleys of which 50 are battery hybrids. They have one battery electric bus. The battery electric bus has a huge 120kWh battery (presumably weighing a few tons) and can only operate for 7 hours travelling 110km before it has to be recharged overnight at the depot. The hybrids have 13.6 and 38 kWh batteries, can work continuously for 18 hrs/ day travelling bewteen 215 and 280 km with between 15 and 50 km on battery. The hybrid system is clearly superior. I can’t see costings for these buses. Lublin is planning to buy 40 new hybrid buses and 70 new electric (presumably to replace diesels on routes without trolley wires).
    Another feature of this report is that, as Mike Flinn says, almost all the examples of full electric buses are only a few (up to around 4) buses that are called such things as ‘test’, ‘demonstration’, ‘pilot’ and ‘research,’ reinforcing his warning that this technology is unproven.
    Given this information, one would assume the GWRC would have examined the option of a full hybrid trolley/ battery system for the whole of Wellington (not Hutt or Porirua). WRONG.
    In response to my official information request, the GWRC cites their report ‘Evaluating the impact of different bus fleet configurations’ from 2014. However this report only evaluates replacing the existing trolleys (not diesels) with trolley diesel hydrids (which of course require 2 motors). No evaluation of any kind is done on replacing either just the trolleys or all buses in the Wellington area (including diesels) with hybrid battery/trolleys, despite the clear superiority of this system. They can’t claim they were unaware of this option since the Greens have been advocating it for years and the Jacobs report clearly states this is an option.
    It is not too late to do this properly. The wires are still intact and most contracts have ‘escape’ clauses. Similarly the contract with Tranzit could be renegotiated to specify hybrids and they could in turn change the order with their suppliers – I am sure Tranzit would rather have several hundred new electric buses rather than the soon-to-be-obsolete true diesel dinosaurs that the GWRC is making us pay for.

  10. Kerry, 14. October 2017, 12:04

    Wellington’s ‘outdated’ trolleybuses use less than half the carbon emissions of the the latest diesels.

    They were well-built and don’t have diesel engines shaking them to pieces, so they should have no trouble lasting ten years if the new technology takes longer than expected.

  11. Robert, 14. October 2017, 14:43

    The trolley buses are an icon and a useful tourist marketing tool, if the powers that be in Wellington still cared about such things. They appear to think electrical transport systems are too sophisticated for the low grade people they prefer to prioritise. I am sure people around the world would have been fascinated by many of Wellington’s hilly curvy trolley routes which seem to me to be very unusual. Of course in deference to the supposedly enlightened world leading leftism and champions for social justice, the world’s fashionable media no longer deride NZ’s local and national government as fairly hopeless and the average New Zealander as being a rural prejudiced bigot from the stone age, which was the general line of the Guardian and Independent on Clark’s Aotearoa until a decade ago. Proritising those awful council high rises as being in the supposedly grand East German and Cuban style of community housing now seems to win dividends in CNN / BBC support worldwide so we won’t see any international investigation of the scandalous phaseout of a trolley system that most British municipalities would do anything for .

  12. Mike Flinn, 14. October 2017, 20:58

    In response to Adam: it was not possible to include details on all the points in the article.
    Briefly here is the requested detail of battery electric buses in the UK in mid 2017 as an example.
    Scotland 9 ( 4 operators), Harrogate 1, York 13, Manchester 53 (3 models) Coventry 3, Milton Keynes 8, London 51 BYD single deck (largest batch) 13 other single deck, 5 BYD double deck, Brighton 2 and Dorchester 2.
    There are 18 operators, only 5 of the buses are double deck.
    All are plug rechargeable except 8 buses in Milton Keynes which are floor plate conductively charged.
    Volvo has 3 pantograph charged buses on trial in Gothenberg, Sweden and others are on trial elsewhere.

  13. Keith Flinders, 15. October 2017, 19:09

    Another important consideration is the passenger capacity of the battery buses Mike outlines in his reply to Adam. Most are well short of the capacity of a three axle trolley bus which can take up to 70 passengers, both seated and standing.

    On Friday last around 14:15 I was unable to board a No. 3 trolley to Karori as it was almost full when it reached Pastoral House, meaning few of the many waiting passengers could be accommodated. The next bus was also unable to take all those waiting. For every two trolley buses, three battery buses of the capacity generally being employed now, will be required for the obviously very popular Karori route.

  14. greenwelly, 17. October 2017, 16:50

    At 2pm, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester went through Bowen House at Parliament, and headed up in the lifts with Green Party chief of staff Tory Whanau and leader James Shaw’s executive assistant David Butler-Peck.


  15. Nick Stoneman, 19. October 2017, 0:27

    the whole tendering process that GWRC has used is totally flawed and their endless claims that the Trolleybuses are old and out dated just doesn’t stack up. The present system works well and if Sir Brian Souter was still in charge he would have had GWRC in court for even considering conducting a tender round.. The Trolleybuses are a Wellington icon. I always look out of the window of my plane as I’m coming into land to see if there is a Trolleybus sitting at Lyall Bay, or if coming from the north travelling down Calabar Road. Now after 31st October I won’t bother looking out the window to see a smelly dirty ex Auckland diesel..

  16. Glen Smith, 19. October 2017, 6:43

    Kerry. I didn’t mean to imply that trolley/battery hybrids should replace our current sturdy trolleys which, as Mike says, should see out their considerable remaining lifespan servicing fully wired routes. The question is what to do on partially or non wired routes whch are currently serviced by diesel dinosaurs. The aim should be to progressively replace these diesels by electric technology.
    For substantially wired routes (up to 5 km or so ‘off wire’ allowing small batteries and substantial time ‘on wire’ for charging) the superior technology is clearly trolley/ battery hybrids, as outlined above, which the GWRC havent even considered. The GWRC and both you and Mike seem confident these will be surpassed by battery technology in the not too distant future. The more reading I do on battery technology the more sceptical I am of this. Manufacturers are experimenting with different lithium ions and anode/ cathodes which improves charging times and gives small gains in storage, albeit at the cost of safety (look at the Samsung batteries) and battery longevity, but no quantum change looks likely that will overcome the basic problem of stored energy density which means electric buses spend a lot of their time and effort transporting their own battery rather than passengers. A comment from someone who has expertise in this area would be welcomed.
    The logical plan (in my view) is to retain trolleys and first progressively replace diesels on substantially wired routes ( up to around 5km ‘off wire’- which is essentially all of Wellington) by trolley/ battery hybrids. Then finally replace diesels on minimally or non wired routes with electric buses (by then the technology should at least have stabilised/ standardised.)
    Instead we are dumping the superior and proven trolleys, paying large sums to kill the golden goose (our wired network that enables the superior and proven trolley and trolley/ battery technology) and paying large sums to buy several hundred more diesel dinosaurs (which we already have a surplus of and which we should be trying to get rid of).
    How did we end up with such a demonstrably illogical and frankly stupid plan?
    As Mike and other commentators say it looks like this is all in the pursuit of mindless right wing ‘market’ ideology rather than having a single publically owned and operated transport organisation which could undertake logical transport planning. This is yet another example of how pursuit of this ideology results in inferior and illogical outcomes. When will we learn.

  17. IanS, 19. October 2017, 6:48

    Interesting that other cities of the world continue to trial new trolley buses.


    “The reason that electric trolley buses are being tested is that hilly terrain uses up a lot of battery power, and limits the usefulness of electric buses.” They could be describing some city like ours.

  18. greenwelly, 19. October 2017, 19:19

    Both NZ First and the Greens campaigned to keep the Trolleys. So let’s see what they are prepared to do about this now……

  19. Jeff Wien, 23. October 2017, 19:49

    One would hope that the new Government including NZ First and the Greens will take immediate action within the next week to halt the abandonment of the zero-emission trolley buses on 31 October. An injunction should be issued to prevent the GWRC from carrying out its ill-conceived plans to dieselise the Wellington bus fleet.

  20. John B, 23. October 2017, 20:57

    Last week, Dayton USA decided to renew and extend their trolley bus operation. One of the reasons for this is because of the great advances in trolley technologies which now have the possibility of extended off-wire coverage using high capacity batteries.

    GWRC have claimed that trolleys are inflexible, but this is no longer the case. Dayton have proved this over a 3 year trial, stating that we could run the buses where ever we wished.

    Other cities are also testing and using high capacity batteries for everyday trolley use. These batteries differ from the ones within the current Wellington fleet, which are not suitable for every day usage.