Scrapping trolley buses foolhardy

SUE KEDGLEY
Last updated 09:05 21/04/2014
Wellington trolley bus

ON THE LINE: The future of Wellington's trolley buses will be decided in June.

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Many Wellingtonians regret the fact our forefathers got rid of Wellington's trams 50 years ago. Now there's another, similarly short-sighted proposal on the table: to scrap our pollution-free, climate-friendly fleet of trolley buses and replace them with diesel buses.

At a time when fossil fuels are becoming scarcer and pricier, and we're being exhorted to switch to clean, sustainable energy sources, it makes no sense to replace trolley buses that run on renewable energy with diesel buses powered by fossil fuel.

And if we're serious about climate change, and reducing our carbon footprint, why would we replace zero- emitting trolleybuses with diesel buses that produce carbon emissions?

Nor does it make any sense to increase Wellington's fleet of diesel buses when international research is highlighting the damaging health effects of diesel emissions.

Diesel fumes contain hazardous pollutants and fine particles that are carcinogenic and contribute to lung cancer, asthma and other diseases. Regular exposure to diesel fumes is as likely to cause cancer as is passive smoking.

The latest model Euro 5 diesel buses reduce diesel emissions, but they still emit the fine particles that cause serious health problems. Some cities are proposing to eliminate diesel buses entirely from their downtown areas for just this reason.

Trolley buses have other advantages over diesel buses. They are quiet, comfortable and smooth to ride, and much better at climbing hills. Their electric engines are far more efficient than diesel engines, which is why trolley buses last about twice as long as diesel buses. They also save us thousands of gallons of imported diesel each year and make us less vulnerable to future oil shocks.

But they do have disadvantages. They rely on overhead wires, and they don't have the flexibility of diesel buses. But this is a problem of the past.

New electric technology is available to equip trolley buses with rechargeable battery systems. This makes trolleys much more flexible, and allows them to travel substantial distances without relying on overhead wires.

Environmentally progressive cities such as San Francisco, Vancouver, Rome and Strasbourg have recently invested in new generation trolley buses.

The other disadvantage of our trolley bus fleet is that the electricity generators that power it are 50 years old and in urgent need of upgrading.

Ever since the Wellington City Council sold its power company in 1993, there's been no investment in upgrading the substations that power the buses, and Wellington Electricity Company estimates it will cost anywhere between $16 million and $52 million to do the job.

Many people consider this cost prohibitive, and it's being presented as one of the main justifications for scrapping our trolley buses.

But we've just spent $600 million upgrading our trains, so why not invest in upgrading the substations that power the trolley buses, and give these substations another 50 years of life - especially when it will cost almost as much ($20 million) to take down the overhead wires, as it will cost to fix the subway stations?

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The trolley bus fleet itself has recently been upgraded at a cost of $40 million. These refurbished buses have a further 10 to 15 years of life in them. Why scrap them?

AND what would replace them? The Greater Wellington Regional Council hasn't decided yet. Various options, such as hybrid buses and battery-powered electric buses, are being mooted.

Hybrids are realistic - but they should be used to replace our existing diesel buses, not our non-polluting trolley buses.

Battery-powered electric buses are a new technology still in its infancy. A regional council report evaluating future options points out that it could be five to 10 years before they are a reliable form of public transport. And they have their shortcomings. Their batteries are toxic and difficult to dispose of, and they make the vehicles heavier and so less efficient.

But in the end, I suspect diesels will be chosen, because they are cheaper. The New Zealand Transport Agency, which will fund the purchase of future buses, has made it clear that cost will be a major factor in its decision. This explains why the report evaluating options for future buses in Wellington assumes that our fleet of trolley buses will be replaced by Euro 3 diesel buses.

This is foolish short-term thinking - the sort of thinking that saw off Wellington's trams. Today, trams and their modern incarnation, light rail, are seen as the most efficient and environmentally friendly method of transport ever invented.

It would be foolhardy in 2014 to ditch our electric trolley bus network and close off options for using renewable energy to power our transport fleet.

Globally, cities are moving towards electric powered public transport. Why would Wellington, which once had the goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral capital in the world, head off in exactly the opposite direction?

The regional council will decide whether or not to scrap our trolley buses on June 24.

It is at present consulting Wellingtonians about this proposal. Be sure you have your say before it's too late.

Sue Kedgley is a Greater Wellington Regional councillor.

- The Dominion Post

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