The dirty truth about Wellington buses - and why GWRC wants to keep it secret

The new Wrightspeed electric hybrid prototype for Wellington - but how green are they really?
ROGER BLAKELEY/SUPPLIED

The new Wrightspeed electric hybrid prototype for Wellington - but how green are they really?

OPINION: It's a situation every Wellington cyclist or pedestrian knows well. You come up behind a diesel bus stopped at the lights. Then the lights change and the bus moves forward. You are left choking and spluttering in the wake of sooty exhaust. 

But the unpleasantness is only part of the problem. Diesel emissions contribute to greater air pollution – which ultimately leads to higher levels of respiratory disease, therefore higher health costs. Then there's climate change.

The Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) might tell you that diesel emissions are the unfortunate but necessary cost of having a public bus system. Besides, the technology will eventually improve and get cheaper. GWRC chairman Chris Laidlaw even reckons we are 'likely' to see some electric buses in Wellington soon. "Hopefully", before you can say "melting polar icecap", Wellington will have entirely electric buses. 

READ MORE: Auckland diesel buses set to replace Wellington's electric trolleys

The trouble is, fully electric buses aren't yet available, and our clean, green trolley buses are being sent to the electric chair at the end of October. That means our supposedly environmentally friendly city will be reliant on dirty diesel buses, probably cheap hand-me-downs from Auckland, for "at least" eight months. 

Perhaps Wellington needs to replace the motto on its coat of arms from Suprema a Situ to Supremely Sooty until we're fully electric. Liberal Wellingtonians of the type who sit on the GRWC would be horrified to be compared with Donald Trump, but when it comes to climate change, are we that different?  

So why did the GWRC get rid of trolley buses if there was no clean, cost-effective alternative readily available? Privately owned Wellington Electricity estimated that it would cost between $18 million and $52 million to upgrade the dilapidated electricity substations powering the trolleys. Funny how councillors who wanted to get rid of the trolleys only quoted the upper limit. 

Why had the substations run down? That often happens when you privatise a public asset. After council-owned Capital Power was sold off in the 1990s – thanks a lot, Fran Wilde and Mark Blumsky – it went through four different owners to eventually become Wellington Electricity. Successive corporate owners have made handsome capital gains and profits, but haven't invested in infrastructure. 

We don't know exactly how much upgrading the substations would have cost because the GWRC voted down a motion asking for an independent expert review of the estimated cost. They simply voted – with the exception of Greens Sue Kedgley and Paul Bruce – to get rid of the trolleys quick smart. Could this be the biggest environmental backfire since diesel buses first sputtered into town?

The good news is that new operator Tranzit will be using buses that emit 38 per cent less harmful pollutants than current ones. Even better, NZ Bus will be fitting 57 Wellington trolley buses with Wrightspeed motors. These are hybrid engines with rechargeable electric batteries. 

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According to NZ Bus chief executive Zane Fulljames, the fleet of 57 trolley buses "could" be converted in time for use on NZ Bus routes when new contracts start in July next year. 

But how green are these buses really? According to NZ Bus, they could use as much as 75 per cent of the diesel used by a normal diesel bus, though the company is looking at ways to reduce this. A best-case scenario "could" see some buses running entirely on rechargeable batteries. 

NZ Bus should be applauded for trying to come up with a solution, however flawed. Meanwhile, I propose that GRWC councillors who voted to get rid of the trolleys so soon should be made to travel on sooty diesel buses for the rest of their natural term – until the next election. 

I'm not happy hearing councillors and providers using words like "likely", "might", "could", "hopefully", "ideally", "maybe", "element of risk" and "time will tell" when it comes to public transport. I want to commute on an efficient clean bus, not come in on a wing and a prayer.   

In the meantime, can I suggest GWRC issues free face masks to ratepayers who have to walk or cycle near the diesel buses when they sputter down from Auckland. And the face masks could also work as cunning disguises during the next local body elections for GWRC councillors who voted to get rid of the trolleys.

 - Stuff

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