Wellington Scoop

All change? Trolley buses, music lessons, and snake oil

After the long debate about light rail and the transport spine, yesterday’s news about the demise of Wellington’s trolley buses came as a surprise, as did the concerns stated by the company that runs them.

The Regional Council told the DomPost that trolley bus services will end in 2017 as part of a plan for Wellington to have more modern vehicles, though these haven’t yet been found.

Zane Fulljames of NZ Bus, which owns the trolley buses, said it was pointless to get rid of them without deciding what would replace them. “A decision hasn’t been made. There needs to be a solid plan in place from trolleys to the next piece of technology.” He said the trolley buses could be used till 2022.

His dismay was echoed by the chief executive of the Cable Car Company which runs the overhead lines. He said it was disappointing that trolley buses would be stopping because “they’re an iconic part of Wellington that we all know and love.”

But Paul Swain of the Regional Council insists the trolley buses are too expensive. “Axing them was a big call but the correct one.” His reasons: the cost of maintaining the wire network, and the backlogs caused when they break down.

According to the DomPost, the decision is contained in a draft public transport plan released yesterday by the Regional Council. But the release has been a very restricted one – there’s nothing about it on the council’s website this weekend so it’s impossible to discover the complete details.

The paper says the council is also planning to change bus routes around the city, focusing on north-south and east-west spines. There will be more frequent services, but also the need for more passengers to change buses.

Mr Fulljames of NZ Bus is “very, very supportive” of the new routes. However, he is concerned that there’s no plan about how to introduce the changes.

Save our trolley buses, say two regional councillors

Maximus: Off your trolley

Not only bus services are facing change. Changes to music education in the city have been announced, and challenged, this week. On Radio New Zealand yesterday, two university professors were questioned by Eva Radich about the news that the New Zealand School of Music, till now a combined venture run by VUW and Massey, is being taken over by Victoria. But the word takeover isn’t mentioned in the official announcement, which does its best to play down what is being planned.

The two vice-chancellors say they are both very proud of what the combined Music School has achieved in the areas of teaching, research and community engagement on two separated campuses over the past eight years. But their pride is qualified, as they say the joint operation has to end. Why? “To ensure the long-term viability of tertiary music programmes.” They promise that no jobs will be lost and all students will be able to complete their studies when everything is transferred into one venue up the hill at Victoria. And music at Massey isn’t to be completely abandoned – it’s to be given new courses in popular music in its college of creative arts. (“Lorde is the great example.”)

Then there’s the long-running debate about changes to Wellington local government. It was given some new life during the week when Bob Harvey, on a flying visit from Auckland to speak to the Lower Hutt Rotary Club, said he thinks we need to become a super city . Sir Bob, who was mayor of Waitakere for six terms till the super-city arrived, warned that we’ll be left behind unless we follow the example of Auckland. “Wellington is in danger of losing its voice, its power and its identity, and that’s disappointing… Local politicians need to forget about protecting their patch.”

There are, of course, other points of view, notably that of Lower Hutt mayor Ray Wallace, who organised a widely-reported “secret meeting” of mayors opposed to amalgamation. (Was he in the Rotary audience for the Harvey speech?)

Three correspondents in the DomPost’s letters section gave their reasons for disagreeing with Sir Bob. Gavin Dillon of Mt Victoria referred to the selling of snake oil and wrote: “Wellington’s identity is unique … Who wants it to be compared with Auckland with its sprawling crowded roads, and high cost of rental and property ownership?” Teresa Homan wrote “the residents of Hutt City and Upper Hutt … do not want to have our assets stripped from us and used to buy more big-ticket items that will be centralised in central Wellington.” And Lewis Holden wrote: “Having lived in Auckland and seen their rates rise along with their grass berms, I would caution Wellington not to rush into amalgamation.”

Sir Bob seems to have forgotten his regrets when Waitakare city vanished into the super-city monolith. As he wrote in 2012: “I personally felt a great deal of grief, believing Waitakere was the one city that had a genuine sense of pride, place and progress.” Perhaps he may have some secret sympathy for the views of Ray Wallace and the people of the Hutt Valley.


  1. Gareth Hughes, 16. March 2014, 8:36

    Wellington’s iconic, clean trolley buses are part of what makes our town unique. I’m going to fight to save them. [via Twitter]

  2. Paul Bruce, 16. March 2014, 8:39

    If Wellington is going for a low emission fleet, then we need to get rid of the diesel buses. [via Twitter]

  3. Ian Shearer, 16. March 2014, 9:32

    Why is it that an innovative electric vehicle inductive power technology charging system, developed and patented by researchers at Auckland University, and now being trialled in municipal bus fleets all over the world, cannot be introduced here? Want to know more – search for HaloIPT.

    We should use this NZ grown system – and possibly even start by converting the existing trolley buses to battery / GNG hybrids and use HaloIPT for the battery charging. Then we could remove the lines.

  4. Daran Ponter, 16. March 2014, 14:09


    Before you go on an all out assault to keep the trolley buses you might want to consider:

    a) Ratepayers pay approximately $4million more per annum to keep the trolley buses on the road than the same number of Euro 5 diesel buses – let’s not confuse low emission with low cost.

    b) The trolley buses only run during week days. If they are to run on Saturdays and Sundays that $4 Million figure gets closer to $5 million per annum, and still only on particular routes.

    c) There is huge deferred maintenance/upgrade due on the power supply – in the $ Millions.

    d) Trolley buses only serve a portion of Wellington City’s bus routes – wouldn’t it be better to move to a low emission fleet that covered all routes in the City, not to mention the Hutt Valley, Porirua, Kapiti and the Wairarapa.

    e) The trolley bus fleet is coming to the end of its life. Now is the time to consider if there isn’t better technology that can deliver many of the things we appreciate about electric buses now at a lower cost and across the region.

    This is also the opportunity to push for things that should be universal in a cosmopolitan bus fleet – accessibility (low floor design, pram accessibility), integrated ticketing, bike racks, wifi etc.

    It will also be a time for us to consider how we act to preserve a part of our transport heritage for future generations.

    Rather than riling against the demise of trolley buses, how about looking forward to modern and integrated transport solutions!

  5. CC, 16. March 2014, 17:22

    Thanks for the comments Daran. It is surprising to hear that the trolley bus fleet is obsolete after only seven years. Added to that, it is obvious that diesels, hybrids etc. also have relatively short life-spans and depend on fossil fuels. So – shouldn’t you be making the case for light rail on the main routes (as pre- 1960). After all, the (new) Wellington cable car is still going strong after 35 years and internationally, trams seem to go indefinitely, with some units having served cities for the best part of a century.

    The level of subsidy you state as applicable to trolley buses certainly makes scary reading. Could you please provide information about all the PT subsidies so the trolley bus subsidies can be put into context. That would also put some serious context around your final two paragraphs.

  6. Daran Ponter, 16. March 2014, 20:18

    Hi CC,

    The GWRC opt-out of the trolleys is, I understand, largely informed by the current contractual arrangements. The current fleet could go on beyond 2017 for perhaps another 5 years, But don’t forget the current fleet is largely just a refreshed fleet based on 1980s running gear and body frame.

    As for trams, yes, I think it is a superior mode, but a viable tram network can only be built around a solid core. When the Regional Transport Committee recently voted for buses for the transport spine they basically put the stake into trams full stop.

    The subsidy for running trolleys is approximately $4million more than the equivalent diesels. The reasons for this largely relate to the fact that with trolleys you have to pay for a second road (the wires) and there are no other users to share this cost with. The actual subsidy data for routes and modes is tightly held by the Council.

    I would hope that the Council would be more transparent around these numbers, but I don’t hold out much hope.

  7. CC, 17. March 2014, 7:00

    Daran – in your opinion, does that mean that WCC pick up $4m in subsidies through the Wellington Cable Car Company to run the ‘Kelburn Light Rail’ and maintain the trolley bus wiring? If so, can it be assumed a bus operator wants to get its hands on that as well as all the other subsidies GWRC hand over to them for running a PT system that is far from efficient or user friendly? If Infratil had its hands on the light rail levers, one suspects that the rails would already be going into the ground – especially if they were being paid for by public funding. The profits would of course be privatized!

  8. Philippa, 17. March 2014, 8:30

    Here’s a link to the Council papers which were published online on Friday and include the draft Regional Public Transport Plan. The report and draft plan is item #4 – Draft Regional Public Transport Plan for public consultation. The link is not hyper-linked so you’ll need to copy this link and paste it in your browser.


  9. John, 17. March 2014, 12:33

    A bit cheeky of you. Yes, Bob Harvey did write that he “personally felt a great deal of grief, believing Waitakere was the one city that had a genuine sense of pride, place and progress” – immediately followed by “But things had to change. Auckland needed a wrecking ball, good leadership and a new vision.”

  10. Mark W, 17. March 2014, 12:51

    With regards to the whole anti trolley bus brigade –

    a) Euro 5 diesel buses are far from clean compared to a zero emission electric trolley bus. But hey let’s just lump trolley buses in with diesel buses that still omit pollutants.

    b) The trolley buses only run on week days so that maintenance can be undertaken on the overhead. Though i’d be happy to see them run on weekends like they used to.

    c) The reason for the high expense in power generators / converters is because successive city councils ran the equipment into the ground without rebuilding and creating new generators / substations.

    d) Trolley buses only serve particular routes due to snotty rich people who live in suburbs like Roseneath, Wadestown and Oriental Bay who were concerned about the overhead wires devaluing their houses. But they didn’t seem to care too much when Telstra strung up fat cables to give them high speed internet or when the power company strung up power cables.

    e) The trolley bus fleet is coming to the end of its life because the incompetent regional council allowed Go Wellington to re-purpose their existing Volvos using their outdated electrics and chassis, instead of buying brand new trolley buses.

    Let’s not let history repeat itself when the trams were pulled from the streets of Wellington. Isn’t it ironic that people talk about how we should have light rail and yet if we hadn’t removed the tram network in the first place we could have.

    This is what happens when you allow the ignorant and the self absorbed rich to run the city. God forbid what would happen if we became a Super City.

  11. David Bond, 17. March 2014, 13:09

    @ Daran Ponter – “But don’t forget the current [trolleybus] fleet is largely just a refreshed fleet based on 1980s running gear and body frame”.

    No! The body frame is entirely new. The only parts recycled from the old Volvo buses were the traction motors, front and rear axles and the 600v line filter. The traction motors were overhauled and ought to be good for many more years. The axles and line filters are also long-lived components. Apart from these items, everything else was new and these vehicles should have the same – or longer – lifespan than the equivalent diesels. A feature which may let them down is the Brazilian electronic control system which apparently suffers failure from time to time. However there are options to fix this that are less drastic than scrapping the buses.

  12. Ross Clark, 17. March 2014, 22:17

    Have a look here at hybrid low-emission buses:


    Not perfect, but the fuel savings (and therefore pollution reduction) are not insignificant. The extra cost for a hybrid is about £110,000 over a standard low-floor bus chassis of £150,000 ($205,000 over $290,000).

  13. Vladimir, 17. March 2014, 22:19

    Wellingtonians like their trolley buses.

    We need a Crimean referendum right here right now.

    Kick the fat diesel smokin politicians out. They are truly hopeless!

  14. James, 17. March 2014, 22:39

    @Daran, which council holds the subsidy data tightly, and on what grounds?

    I was in the meeting where the spine study was signed off. That didn’t include a discussion of scrapping trolley bus service either.

    I’ve been in a presentation on inductive power. I don’t know how flat it needs the roads to be. @Ian, do you want to find them and ask them whether it’s ready for retrofitting to trolley buses?

  15. Ernie, 18. March 2014, 1:37

    Convert the diesels to CNG for a cleaner option. Better still, go for CNG/ electric hybrids, so you can get the advantage of Wellington’s bends and hills in regenerative braking. Cheaper, more flexible and just as ‘clean’ as the trolleys, and speedy with it.

  16. John Osborne, 18. March 2014, 11:38

    The destruction of the trolley bus system, one of the finest public assets in Wellington, an asset that helps to reduce the noise, vibration and fumes of diesel buses from the capital’s Streets. How short sighted is this, for the Wellington Regional Council to make the call and force the trolleybus system to be scrapped. The system is the envy of many cities around the world. Most switched on cities are going for Proven Electric Transport like trolleybuses, because they are cleaner, quieter and have none of horrible diesel fumes. Electric trolleybus is civilised and this act by the Wellington Regional Council, being spearheaded it seems by a Labour man, is uncivilised. Mind you it’s worth pointing out that Mr Swain and Ms Wilde of the Labour Party were both members of that disastrous Government that in nazi-like fashion destroyed the working class in the 1980s. Considering their connection to acts of public vandalism from the past … the removal of the trolleybus system is in the same vein.
    Trolleybuses account for about 60-70 per cent of Inner City Runs. Removing the trolleybuses means you will be flooding Wellington City with 60 per cent more diesel buses. 60 per cent more noise, 60 per cent more fumes, 60 per cent more vibration. Anyone who has lived in the central suburbs for any amount of time will notice how much quieter and cleaner they are thanks to the trolleybuses. You don’t find yourself shouting as much, because the noise factor just isent there. The ride in the trolleybus is quiet with no engine sounds thank god. Trolleybuses are crucial to quality of life. Returning to Auckland after a spell in the Capital, one could see that diesel buses affect the nerves and health of people. Auckland made the big mistake of getting rid of its trolleys years ago. Dont allow the WRC to do the same to you.
    The WRC and their apologists will try and smooth over the removal of the trolleybuses with such ideas as battery buses, hybrid buses and low emission diesel buses. Firstly on the low emission diesel buses. A diesel bus is a diesel bus and theres no taking away from that – it’s still a noisy machine emitting fumes. As for hybrid and battery buses, they are ludicrous proposals for Wellington given its hilly nature. Hybrids and battery buses are not proven technology. If they close the trolley routes down, replacing some services with hydrids, then 6 months down the road when all the trolleys are gone, the WRC will come out and say the hybrids don’t work, you will have to tolerate diesel buses. and by that stage it would be too late to restore the clean quiet trolleybuses. The trolleybus system is essential to any future light rail system. The costs of implementing a new light rail or tram system will be significantly reduced if the trolleybus infrastructure remains in place. It’s the complex electrical network which is the most vital part of the enterprise.
    It’s worth pointing out that trolleybuses make sense on hilly routes, and although they cost more then diesel buses, they have a long lifespan and are more economical long term. I urge All Wellingtonians to get rid of Paul Swain and the other Labour hacks off the WRC as soon as possible and to vote for Green candidates because only the Greens have shown a concern and commitment for the trolleybuses. [Abridged]

  17. Neil Douglas, 18. March 2014, 16:02

    Wellington should make more out of its trolleybuses. They are pretty unique world wide. Yes they are slow and they come off their trolleys, but is speed all we think about?

    I know of research conducted in NZ that has shown that users are willing to pay more to use trolleys because they rate them higher environmentally than diesel buses.

    NZ Bus could paint the trolleys in a different colour to differentiate them and could also give some information on them.

  18. Matt L, 18. March 2014, 16:41

    A table in the Regional Council report (page 30-34) provides more detailed comparisons between the options. One of the things that surprises about them is the cost difference in purchase price.

    Diesel Bus – $300,000-$450000 per bus
    Trolley Bus – roughly $700,000 per bus + investment needed to bring the overhead network up to scratch.
    Hybrid – roughly $600,000 per bus.
    Electric – $900,000-$1.1 million per bus

    I suspect some of the anger/disappointment that the trolleys are going is that people suspect they will just be replaced with the cheapest solution. [Published in Transport Blog]

  19. Pete, 18. March 2014, 16:45

    Where did they get $700,000 per trolley bus? It should be cheaper than a diesel! The entire thing can be made in NZ too, nothing exotic or new there. Smells like a deliberate mistake. (From Transport Blog]

  20. Tony, 18. March 2014, 17:50

    Is our”trolley bus system one of the finest public assets in Wellington” ? It seems to me that something that consumes an ever increasing amount of money for no return is not an asset but a liability.

    When the business case to “save the trolleys” was first put, it was clear the buses themselves would be very expensive. It was also clear that the overhead was expensive (then estimated at $1.5M/year) and the power system needed upgrading. However, the Greater Wellington Regional Council that led the saving of the trolleys claimed the power system only needed $4M over 10 years to keep going. It seems the regional council was wrong by an order of magnitude.

    The trolleys have become a huge money pit funded by Wellington City ratepayers and bus riders. The huge cost increases to keep the trolleys going is the main driver of increased bus fares. We CAN keep the trolleys going but no one will be able to afford to use them.

    It is quite clear that if the real costs of the power system were understood, the trolleys would have been scrapped in 2006. Instead Wellington now has the highest bus fares in the country, no investment (except to keep the trolley buses going) and plummeting patronage. In other words, the trolley bus system is one of the finest public liabilities in Wellington …

  21. The City is Ours, 18. March 2014, 20:10

    No matter what type of bus is used to run the public transport system in Wellington, when run by private operators – particularly those who sell petrol – bus fares are bound to remain high.