Bus review needs to electrify Wellington

Electrify Wellington buses

Big changes are ahead for our buses and the regional council wants to know what you think. Today I launched our easy electronic submission guide alongside 11 barrels of oil — the amount of oil our electric trolley bus fleet saves Wellington each day.

The regional council’s bus review is proposing to abandon electric trolley buses on the revised routes to Seatoun and the Aro Valley. This is incredibly short-sighted. The use of high-tech trolley buses should be expanding throughout Wellington, not going backwards.

Some of the efficiency gains in the review are good but it is essential that the trolley buses and overhead wires are fully utilised and provisions for a future light rail network are integrated into the review.

I love the trolleys. The trolleys are iconic to Wellington, make our city more liveable, and safeguard commuters and the council against oil price increases. Powered mostly by the wind, the council saves approximately $940,000 in diesel costs every year and over 1.5 million KGs of carbon emissions.

The review deadline is this Friday so don’t delay using our handy Wellington City bus review submission guide.


22 Comments Posted

  1. dbuckley

    The downside of those wires is wear as well as accuracy/continuity. The pantograph could be as delicate and accurate as one could wish and the wires would still be problem. Wellington has wind.

    The advantages to having fixed station charging/powering and some capacity of energy storage on the buses are enormous as an engineering solution this rings the bell because it plays to the strengths of our existing infrastructure. Similar arrangements could suit smaller vehicles.

    …and when the earthquake comes, those wires are an extra liability.



    This stuff is do-able. Wellington needs some thought though, as the hills are nothing to sneeze at.


  2. Yeah, but upgrading our entire transport way of life is going to cost big.

    Fixing trolly buses is a graduate project.

  3. dbuckley:

    You could use some basic robotics that heavily reduce lateral forces where the rollers interface with the wires, and also maybe keep the vertical forces more consistent with feedback on that axis as well, you could no doubt make the connection much more secure allowing faster travel speeds.

    But you can contemplate forever on different technology upgrades possibilities with different forms of transport. The question is: Where to invest? As I said in Julie-Anne’s article, the real techno-revolution will come from full-automation cars which will render most other technologies obsolete.


    The full implications of full-automation technology are extraordinary. It will revolutionise not just transport but the way cities, as machines that meet human needs, even operate.

  4. People think I am insane when I describe routes through Canterbury using electrical features.

    I love trolly buses. Nothing wrong with the basic design. But perhaps we could apply a bit of 21st century thinking to the pantograph stuff on top of the bus. If we can put a guided missile up a terrorists arse or fly quadracopters in formation through a door then surely we can find a way to track the relationship between the bus and the wires in real time and make sure the bus stays in contact with the wires.

    How hard can it be?????

  5. There is no contest. The electric trolley bus has the single drawback of having a difficult contact to maintain to difficult to maintain overhead wires. Particularly in a city where you’d want an alarm permit to install wind chimes. (Yes, I did that on purpose)

    So setting up “recharging stations” as stops would make sense. If one can dump energy enough into a bus quickly enough to deal with stops that have no passengers to get on or off you’re done. More on-board storage is required for the latter, as the best answer in terms of speed of service is to drive right past.

    The flywheels are a serious contender in the ability to do things that way. The second half of it is a self-contained means of handling depleted storage. The bus has to be able to move again if its primary storage is depleted. Any small engine will do, as its job is to run at its highest efficient power rating to spin the flywheel back up. Not to power the bus itself while running. Compressed air (see Tata), also has some merit and needs a similar small auxiliary. Notice that a compressed air solution blasts COLD air out as an exhaust.

    One could also try to improve on the wires. Unlike AA I like the trolley buses… and the manner in which one can find the route they follow (bet none of you thought of THAT one 🙂 ), and the wires make me feel comfortably “city”, and the fact that they can stop and start and run without emitting noxious and dangerous gases. One does notice that the two things I like about the wires are pretty low on the priority list for anyone with 3 working brain cells.

  6. If the trolley buses had some battery storage on board, they would be able to travel a bit further should they become disconnected from the overhead lines. If they also had an automatic method of re-establishing the connection, then the result would be uninterrupted travelling. (Better is to upgrade the connection system so it doesn’t become disconnected.) Beyond the existing overhead wires, if the bus stops had overhead wires, the trolley bus could recharge each time it pulled in to a stop, so an on-board engine would only need to be used infrequently.

    “Battery” in this context includes technology such as flywheel storage.

    A possible alternative to an on-board engine could be fuel cells. However a gas turbine coupled to a small alternator sounds good to me.


  7. @Robin McCandless

    Commenting on your quote:
    ‘Could it be that there is a NZ manufactured solution staring us in the face and we’ve ignored it?
    Quotes from Wikipedia:
    “Since 1999, Hybrid electric buses with gas turbine generators have been developed by several manufacturers in the US and New Zealand, with the most successful design being the buses made by Designline of New Zealand. The first model went into commercial service in Christchurch (NZ) since 1999, and later models now operates daily service in Tokyo, Auckland (NZ), Hong Kong, and Newcastle upon Tyne (UK)”

    Those Auckland hybrid buses were smaller than standard vehicles which have now not operated for several years. Speculation has it that these buses were unreliable and expensive to operate. Doesn’t sound like a solution to me for real urban networks carrying real passenger volume. Ditto the proposed US school buses.

    According to Wikipedia, there are 315 trolley bus networks in operation around the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolleybus

    Those networks continue to develop and there appear to be some very fancy looking high capacity articulated vehicles. Why would you throw away a proven design that works well in 315 cities for unproven technology that appears to reside in the fantasy world along with monorails, personal rapid transit etc

  8. @AA – quoting you:
    ‘No one gives a s**t. They’re just slow and ugly to us unromantic but down-to-earth Wellingtonians (majority).’

    I think you’ll find that the urban character that was created by generations of electrified spine PT networks in Wellington is something that people very much do care about. Those regularly spaced groups of shops such as in Strathmore, or through Newtown were built because of the tram/trolley bus network. Even today, the existance of “guaranteed PT” because of those trolley bus wires will be having an effect on the fabric of those communities, and the quality of urban environment. Compare Mt Eden shops in Auckland in rush hour compared to Strathmore Shops. Strathmore shops is just sooo much nicer during that crunch time.

    When the Auckland tram network was ripped out, patronage of the overall Auckland PT network crashed from being one of the highest rates per population to being the lowest in Australasia. Many of the same arguments that you are advancing were used to argue for ditching Aucklands tramway network. I would be very wary about chopping trolley bus routes in Wellington.

  9. @AA: My suggestion is to use diesel electric hybrid buses as PLUG IN diesel electric buses, getting a direct power feed from the existing overhead wires when within the network, and using battery power and only occasionally diesel to travel beyond the trolley bus network

  10. I thought I’d weigh in with the text of my submission here:

    I am concerned that these changes to the bus system represent a wasted opportunity for larger scale holistic thinking about public transport in the capital.
    Some points to consider:
    1. We already have a reasonable core network of electrified trolley bus routes. We should utilise and build upon this capability to move towards a fully sustainable transport network rather than adding routes that depend on unsustainable foreign imports of oil, with their high degree of price volatility and a significant medium term risk of security of supply issues.
    2. Our city is 5km away from the most efficient and effective (in terms of % utilisation) wind farm in the world. It is quite embarrassing and a very poor piece of national and city branding to have the capital city: “Windy Wellington” of “100% Clean Green New Zealand” to commit to a fossil fuel based solution reminiscent of 1970’s city planning thinking.
    3. A light rail solution lining a park ‘n’ ride node at the bottom of Ngauranga gorge, the rail station, Lambton Quay, Courtney Place, Newtown hospital and the airport would significantly reduce congestion on the cities road at peak times. This solution would be zero emissions, a quick and effective means of transport for its customers, and by reducing the load on the existing road network would increase the effectiveness and efficiency of current bus, bike, motorbike and car transport solutions.
    4. Electrifying the entire Wellington bus fleet does not necessarily require the extension of the overhead cabling system into newer suburbs (with the associates capital cost, maintenance and visual pollution this entails). Hybrid and plug in hybrid busses are in service and further development around the world. Further reading here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_electric_bus
    and here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Designline.
    Could it be that there is a NZ manufactured solution staring us in the face and we’ve ignored it?
    Quotes from Wikipedia:
    “Since 1999, Hybrid electric buses with gas turbine generators have been developed by several manufacturers in the US and New Zealand, with the most successful design being the buses made by Designline of New Zealand. The first model went into commercial service in Christchurch (NZ) since 1999, and later models now operates daily service in Tokyo, Auckland (NZ), Hong Kong, and Newcastle upon Tyne (UK)”
    “The United States Department of Energy (USDOE) announced the selection of Navistar Corporation for a cost-shared award of up to $10 million to develop, test, and deploy plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) school buses. The project aims to deploy 60 vehicles for a three-year period in school bus fleets across the nation. The vehicles will be capable of running in either electric-only or hybrid modes and will be recharged from a standard electrical outlet. Because electricity will be their primary fuel, they will consume less petroleum than standard vehicles. To develop the PHEV school bus, Navistar will examine a range of hybrid architectures and evaluate advanced energy storage devices, with the goal of developing a vehicle with a 40-mile (64 km) electric range. Travel beyond the 40-mile (64 km) range will be facilitated by a clean diesel engine capable of running on renewable fuels. The DOE funding will cover up to half of the project’s cost and will be provided over three years, subject to annual appropriations.[24]”
    6. I would strongly urge the city to examine the feasibility of Plug in Hybrid buses, running on direct main electricity for the portions of their route within the existing trolley bus network, battery power for all/most of their journey beyond the trolley bus network, and diesel or gas turbine biofuel derived power for emergency propulsion or routes with large portions of their distance beyond the trolley bus network.

  11. tuktuk:

    Quote: “This has had an important role in creating the urban character that makes Wellington special.”

    No one gives a s**t. They’re just slow and ugly to us unromantic but down-to-earth Wellingtonians (majority).

    But you are right on the noisy diesels. However, if you had a hybrid the diesel engine could be small (about 20kw) and designed to be acoustically isolated, with relative ease.

  12. @ Brent C

    I have just seen that article and several others published by that author who seems to have had quite a role in the proposed re-jigging. It seems to me that his comments along the line that you one should be able to chop and change trolley bus routes in the way you can with diesels rather defeats the whole point of what a trolley bus network is about. Like tramways and railways, they are a tool to bring development to the wires, in the same way that trains, trams bring development to the tracks. Given the quietness and capacity of a trolley bus network, there is considerable scope for urban intensification with the underlying certainty by businesses and residents that the trolley bus wires “are permanent”, in the same way that a commuter rail network is.

    In Wellington this has happened naturally over both the trolley bus network and the tramway network that preceded it. This has had an important role in creating the urban character that makes Wellington special. Here today, gone tomorrow diesel bus routes threaten to undo this pattern of urban development.

    By the way Gareth, great to see you involved in transport issues again. You and Julie Ann Genter actually bring very complimentary skills, talents and passion to the important field of transport.

  13. I ride the buses regularly & Im glad that there is this service.. BUT there still needs to be a real change of mindset in Aotearoa.

    I still see buses with only a few people on & occasionally empty. This surely is neither economic or environmentally successful !
    Whilst the roads are over-crowded with cars.

    The Govt./Council need to actively promote it. I for one would like to see a train service that runs the length of the country, rather than more upgrades to state hwy 1.. BUT its one thing to build it & another to get a majority to actually use it (profitable)


  14. AA

    Ground connection is an excellent alternative, particularly given Wgtns propensity for wind and rain (both of which significantly affect the effectiveness of aerial cable), with the added benefit of resolving some of the visual pollution.

    Unfortunately it would cost a vast amount to implement (civil works alone) so is unlikely to be on the WCC investment radar.

  15. Trevor29:

    I live in Wellington so I know what those trolley buses are like. Believe me they suck.

    They have to go slow or they keep detaching from their overhead lines around the corners (which periodically happens anyway – the driver gets out and re-attaches them quite often).

    However, if you had a steer-by-wire system that fixes the bus to a rigid travel path, then there is the possibility of using a ground rail as an electrical contact (positive connection), and an overhead connection like what electric trains use (negative connection). This would in turn allow the bus to electrically go on and off line like you suggest.

    Auckland could employ an electric bus system like this instead of its rail network, too. But unfortunately they’re too railigious to even begin to think like this.

  16. With the power of the national grid available to them, I don’t know of any reason why the trolley buses would need to be slow, and there is no reason why they should be painful to either driver or passengers.

    If diesel hybrids are the answer as AA suggests, then why not make a hybrid diesel/trolley bus which can run on overhead power where available, and battery power to get around obstacles if necessary, with the diesel available for use on longer runs where there aren’t the overhead wires? This would save most of the oil and the associated noise, CO2 and smoke emissions, while giving the flexibility of a diesel and the economy of a diesel hybrid.

    Now all we need is an automatic or remote-controlled system to contact the overhead wires…


  17. The point of the review is to improve the way we run public transport services around the city. It was always going to be controversial. People just do not like change. I personally think the changes we what is required to improve the bus service and get the best out of our current situation.
    On of the major contributors to the document- Jarett Walker, a transport consultant wrote about the trolly bus situation on his blog: Human Transit. You can read it here: http://www.humantransit.org/2012/02/wellington-am-i-taking-away-your-trolley-buses.html

    One of the things people love about Wellington are the trolley buses. We should be pushing Greater Wellington to install wires along major bus corridors around the central city. Hopefuly in the form of a full Busway along the Quays!

  18. Yes, GWRC should have made it clearer that they are axing trolley buses on some routes. But I think there is justification for it as they are extending the routes beyond the end of the wires (eg. Aro Valley will continue up Raroa rd to Kelburn). As long as they still maintain the wires for future use and look at extending the trolley bus network.

  19. I’ve submitted that we put all the CBD buses down the waterfront (Jervois Quay, etc) route, with trolley wires, bus lanes and other priority measures such as lights/overpasses.

    That takes buses out of the Lambton Quay area allowing it to become a semi-pedestrianised shared space. It would give buses a fast and reliable path through the city. For most uses, the waterfront is just as accessible as Lambton Quay.

    It’s also capable of incremental upgrade to a busway.

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