Insight: Off our trolleys

The end of our commuter nightmare?

MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 28/06/2014
Bus USA
GWRC

CLEAN AND GREEN: A modern hybrid-diesel electric bus cruises the street of Seattle in the United States of America.

Trolley bus
WIRED: Trolley buses have been a feature of Wellington for years, and wire that supply them with electricity criss-cross the city.

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It's a familiar commuter nightmare for Wellingtonians: your trolley bus becomes detached from its overhead line, and you and everyone in the buses behind you are stuck while the driver gets out and hooks it up again. All that is about to end with the demise of the trolleys in 2017 - but not everyone is happy about the decision to scrap them.

They are expected to be almost five minutes faster during your morning commute and 10 minutes quicker when the roads have cleared at night.

They should leave you breathing air that is almost 40 per cent cleaner in just three short years, and be comfortable, modern, reliable and less of a drain on your pocket as a ratepayer.

They are hybrid diesel-electric buses - and after a near-unanimous vote by Greater Wellington Regional Council on Thursday, they are now the future of public transport in Wellington.

With the flick of a pen, the council embraced a plan to replace the capital's diesel buses with new hybrids, and put an end to its 90-year relationship with trolley buses.

From 2017, the days of watching drivers grumble as they stride out into the teeth of a biting southerly to hook their buses back up to the overhead juice will be no more.

The council's case for ditching the 60 trolleys and 218 diesels in favour of hybrids looks pretty good on paper, especially if climate change concerns keep you awake at night.

Keep in mind the endgame is to one day see Wellington shift from hybrid buses to fully electric ones, just as soon as the technology is available.

But one of Greater Wellington's Green councillors, Sue Kedgley, is up in arms.

"If our future is electric, which we agree with 100 per cent, why would you scrap your existing fleet of electric buses? It doesn't make sense."

She is not the only sceptic. NZ Bus, which owns Go Wellington and the city's trolley buses, is concerned the decision to scrap the trolleys has been made on the back of inaccurate information and several myths.

Top of that list of fables is the one that trolleys and their power supply belong in a museum.

Chief executive Zane Fulljames points out the company spent $36 million improving the fleet about seven years ago.

"Effectively, the things were rebuilt with modern traction engines, new electronics chassis and bodies," he says.

"When you spend almost $40m, you expect you'll end up with something that's a long way from what you started with."

Fulljames says the trolley buses have at least 10 years of life still left in them, which means a little over $15m worth of investment will follow them to the scrap heap.

The overhead lines network is also in the best shape it's been in for the past 30 years, given more than 37 per cent of it has been replaced since 2008, he says.

But it appears the lines will also come down at ratepayers' expense. A figure of somewhere near $20m is being touted for the work.

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Fulljames worries the regional council painted a slightly too dire picture of the trolleys when it sought feedback on what to replace them with earlier this year.

"There's no doubt the substations are ageing, and maybe they are obsolete by comparison to new technology. But they're currently operating at a level of reliability," he says.

"If I bought an iPhone 5 today, that would make my iPhone 4 obsolete, but it doesn't necessarily mean my iPhone 4 is any less reliable."

He also worries about the council's decision to commit to hybrid buses without testing them in Wellington first. "The last thing you would want in Wellington, certainly as a ratepayer, is you . . . introduce a shiny new piece of kit, and then it fails. And we know from experience, through the introduction of trolleys or the new Matangi trains, that it does take quite some period of time to get the performance of a new piece of kit up to speed.

"We're not talking weeks or months. Sometimes we're talking years."

There were plenty of examples of decisions that councils would probably love to go back and change, but could not because they were hamstrung by earlier decisions, he says. "We've got a stadium without a roof, for example."

Kedgley agrees the better option would be to keep the trolleys until the end of their useful lives, in about 10 years or so, which would buy the council enough time to trial hybrids.

At this point in time, there were too many unknowns for ratepayers about how much these new buses would cost, she says.

The best guess at this stage is that a new hybrid will cost about $600,000, although if you buy in bulk, as the council plans to do, the cost could reduce.

Kedgley says that suggests the council will be paying about $36m to replace the 60 trolleys, and it is not known if their batteries will last much longer than 10 years.

Rather than do that, she would prefer to see the council spend a more modest $16.5m keeping the trolley bus power supply infrastructure chugging along for a few more years.

"The problem with the Wellington bus fleet is the dirty, filthy diesel buses. We should be focusing on them instead."

BUT talk to staff at the Greater Wellington Regional Council offices, and you get a very different view of how the trolleys are performing.

The council's public transport group general manager, Wayne Hastie, says he has faith in the findings of a PwC report earlier this year, which found that, of the 15 substations supplying electricity to the trolley network, 13 were made of obsolete 1950s equipment.

Yes, the trolleys were refreshed between 2007 and 2009, but they were not equipped with modern technology, according to PwC.

When it came to performance tests, the trolleys were noticeably slower than diesels outside of peak periods, due to overloading issues, becoming detached from their wires, and being unable to pass each other.

In the early morning and middle of the day, trolleys were a good five minutes slower than their diesel counterparts. After 6pm, when the roads were nice and clear, the gap blew out to almost 10 minutes.

Disruptions to trolleys were also common during times when roadworks and other infrastructure upgrades were happening.

Wellingtonians may recall the problems during recent work on the Karori tunnel, which stopped trolleys running on the Karori service for almost a year, and required 14 additional diesel buses to be brought into Wellington.

In short, there are good reasons why Wellington's trolley bus system is the only remaining public trolley system in Australasia.

"They're just more constrained. They don't have the same level of reliability, in our experience, as what the diesels do," Hastie says.

He sees little need for a trial of hybrids.

"What are you actually trialling? Do you want to see if the buses can run up and down hills? Because you don't need to bring them to Wellington to do that. I've seen them in San Francisco and Seattle and Vancouver - they're all hilly cities."

He is quick to assure Wellington ratepayers that the technology has already proven itself in Europe and the United States. "We're too small here in Wellington to be coming in on the leading edge of electric bus technology. The risk that you would take on for the ratepayer would be huge."

Tass Larsen, the council's manager of projects and planning, admits there is still some uncertainty worldwide about how long hybrid batteries will last. But manufacturers are dealing with this issue by leasing the batteries. So if they don't last, the council can just send them back, she says.

The option of spending $16.5m to keep the substations going to a few more years is not a particularly wise idea, as they are not something you could just patch up, she says.

About 53km of cable would need replacing, so if you were going to do it, you would need to do it right and spend about $52m.

"We already get plenty of comments about the reliability of trolley buses. Getting told that we would spend $16.5m and not have a reliable service was not inspiring."

There is also little environmental argument for keeping the trolleys, Hastie says.

With the oldest, most polluting diesel buses being phased out alongside the trolleys, emissions in Wellington city are predicted to drop by about 40 per cent come 2017, and then another 50 per cent of top of that by 2023.

Buses account for just under 3 per cent of the Wellington region's emissions, and trolleys are just 60 of 517 buses across the region, so they were hardly keeping us clean and green, he says.

THE disagreement over the past and future of trolley buses could have been avoided if the council had got all the relevant stakeholders into a room for a free and frank discussion before it embarked on its replacement programme, Fulljames says.

All NZ Bus ever wanted to see was a "sensible" transition plan before ratepayers were locked into a technology that is not yet fully understood.

"All I've heard is that we're moving from trolleys to hybrids and then potentially electrics.

"There's a whole lot of uncertainly in that statement," he says.

"I'm not sure it has been completely thought through in that regard yet. It may have, but it's not abundantly clear to myself, nor is it clear to Wellingtonians."

Fulljames found it odd that PwC did not talk to NZ Bus until the day its report was published.

"Greater clarity about how those numbers were arrived at would be helpful, I guess, for all of Wellington."

Without a solid transition plan in place, bus operators will not have the confidence to invest in hybrids with a 20-year life, fearing the council may decide to scrap them after 10 years.

Hastie takes a different view, saying the council needed to commit to a certain type of technology now ahead of new bus contracts coming into force in 2017.

The decision to scrap the trolleys should not have come as a surprise to NZ Bus, he says.

The council signalled in its long-term plan two years ago that it would be reviewing the long-term future of trolleys because the level of funding required to keep them going was starting to furrow brows around the council table and over at the New Zealand Transport Agency.

"It's been on the radar for a while."

TALE OF THE TAPE TROLLEY BUSES

How they work: Powered by electricity, delivered from overhead cables.

Cost: About $700,000 per vehicle, plus maintenance of overhead networks.

Emissions: Nil, except for emissions at the source of electricity generation.

Noise: Low, about 60 to 70 decibels.

Flexibility: Must follow overhead wiring. Have a limited ability to overtake other trolleys on the same line. Reliability: Hurt by power failures and poles separating from overhead wires.

Who uses them: Eastern Europe, Asia and Northern America. PwC says trolley bus use is falling internationally. Wellington's system is the last remaining in Australasia

HYBRID DIESEL-ELECTRIC BUSES

How they work: Diesel engine is used to charge an internal battery pack that drives the motor. Kinetic energy from braking can also be converted into electrical energy.

Cost: About $600,000 per vehicle. Emissions: Up to 25 per cent less than standard diesel buses.

Noise: Quieter than diesels by about 2-3 decibels.

Flexibility: Same as any other long vehicle on the road.

Reliability: Unproven in the long term.

Who uses them: London runs over 300 hybrid buses as part of its regular service, including double-decker hybrids that have the capacity to carry up to 110 passengers. 

- The Dominion Post

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