Don’t scrap our future

They glide quietly through our streets, but if Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) has its way, our electric trolley buses could glide into the history books. They are an iconic feature of our city and the debate on their future should be more prominent than the current quiet discussions.

In June last year GWRC decided that it would remove the 60 trolley buses from the fleet by 2017 in order to pave the way for newer buses. There were hopes to replace them with electric-diesel hybrids or full electric buses, but the reality is they will most likely be replaced by diesel buses. That’s because I understand GWRC has been unable to find suitable electric replacements – probably because the waiting list for them is so long from other cities around the world who are going electric. The real choice isn’t between trolleys and modern hybrids or battery-electric buses; it’s between keeping the trolleys or more dirty diesel buses. This is a big call.

Anyone who walks Lambton Quay at rush hour knows the smell of diesel fumes from the buses. We don’t need more dirty diesels. The trolleys should be kept in service until there’s a cost-effective electric replacement option.

I was recently on an energy study tour in the U.S. and discovered cities and states there are trying to urgently electrify their transport networks. Electric motors are so much more efficient than traditional engines making electric buses and light rail better for the local environment, people’s health, and cheaper in the long run.

When I mentioned to international energy experts that Wellington was looking at ditching electric trolley buses, and that Kiwirail was considering de-electrifying our main trunk rail line, they were aghast. They couldn’t believe a country with such a positive international clean, green reputation and enviable 80% renewable electricity generation percentage would look at de-electrifying when the rest of the world was busy electrifying. My fear is that it would be a terrible look for our progressive city to be known internationally as an example of ‘what not to do’.

Previous generations of Wellingtonians have already invested in the trolley bus infrastructure – the transformers, the 80 kilometres of wires and 3500 poles that support them – years ago and it would be folly to waste that sunk investment. In fact, removing all those kilometres of wire would cost $8 million alone and the full cost of removal is unknown. When you consider the city spent $27 million upgrading the trolley buses only seven years ago you have to wonder why they are slated for the scrap heap. Auckland and Dunedin both once upon a time had trolley buses like Wellington but decided to scrap them, and found once they were gone, they were gone forever.

Supporters of the decision to scrap the trolleys cite costs associated with the wire network and the difficulty of changing the buses’ routes as reasons to end a 90 year Wellington tradition. I doubt anyone finds the wires aesthetically pleasing and while they’ve served multiple uses, for example kick-starting Wellington’s original broadband network, they aren’t cheap and in an ideal world one day they won’t be needed. Pragmatically, the wires should be removed once a positive electric alternative becomes available.

Regional councillor Paul Swain says that the technology to switch to a 100% electric fleet just isn’t here yet. But international evidence shows that it will be very soon. When I was in Silicon Valley touring Tesla, the innovative electric car and battery company, I learnt of the stunning battery technology developments. For lithium ion batteries we’ve seen prices halve every eight years in a process akin to Moore’s Law for computer processing power. Large scale manufacture of affordable electric buses is just around the corner.

At a time when 194 countries have agreed in Paris on a global agreement to reduce climate pollution and halt global warming, it’s seems even more short sighted to replace zero emission electric buses with polluting diesels.

Our trolley buses are cleaner, quieter, and they protect us from fluctuating oil prices. They might not need to be here forever let’s not ditch them prematurely before we have a better alternative than 60 new diesel buses.

6 Comments Posted

  1. Perhaps councillor Swain is not showing his colours.

    Councillor Manthel some years ago shepherded the demise of trams with some very dodgy moves and bias propaganda, but then Manthel was a part of the motor industry. Every part of the new bus fleet was imported, they used imported fuel, tyres and parts as well as emitting GHG. Hybrid buses follow the same pattern as the energy consumed is fossil fuel derived.

    Wellington Trams could be fully serviced, rebuilt or built from scratch in Wellington. Only two parts were needed from England, the motor armatures and driver operated controllers which were protected by patent. Others could have be made locally then to substitute.
    No rubber tyres, fuel and a long operational efficient life. The Evans Bay power station was coal powered but no body considered that a problem, but trams were.

    Buses could never move large crowds like the trams did. 20 plus thousand crowds moved from Athletic Park in under a half an hour without trams being held up. The rails were their corridor..

    What are Swains colours.

  2. I think electric vehicles are an excellent idea when it comes to tackling air pollution and it would be a total step back to scrap highly efficient trolleybus network with down at heel diesels or any other internal combustion powered machines. I am a great fan trolleybuses plus of course. And I think that Wellington to be served by trolleybus and light rail system could work side by side to overcome air pollution problems. Where I live in Sheffield UK is served by an excellent Super tram Network which has been operating for 21 years now and I feel that a trolleybus system would go well with it. The trolleys could serve as feeders to the light rail route.

  3. Trolleybuses emit no fumes at the roadside. Any vehicles with diesel engines, be they straight diesels or hybrids emit carcinogenic fumes and fumes which also exacerbate asthma. Because of their (lack of) height young children are particularly susceptible to the latter. Trolleybuses can be powered by electricity sourced in different ways and can be 100 per cent Carbon free if ‘green’ electricity is used.. There is no way buses with diesel engines, straight or hybrid, can be Carbon free. All of these benefits come for no extra costs in whole life terms and can even be cheaper especially where the fixed equipment already exists, as it does in Wellington.. The proposal to scrap the trolleybus network is as politely as I can phase it, ‘bizarre’.

  4. Don’t be fooled by references to Moore’s Law for semiconductors, which has resulted in power increases of millions of times over during the last few decades. Lithium batteries are only about 5 times better (in energy stored per kg) than the lead acid ones that have been with us for over a century, and about 50 times worse than a tank of diesel on this yardstick. There is no prospect of doubling in battery performance every two years, maybe every 20 if we are lucky. What this means is that talk of “fully electric buses” is just pie in the sky, unless they have collector poles on the roof and get their energy from overhead wires. Oh … wait a minute …?

  5. Cr Paul Swain (Chair of the regional transport committee) said he does not believe that all-electric buses are available yet – but a presentation to Greater Wellington today (16 Dec) stated that about 40,000 electric buses already in operation in China. But GW have not even requested offers for trolley buses or electric vehicles in the about to be released tender documents. They have only asked for quotes for up to 10 hybrid buses as part of the diesels to replace the trolleys.

    Mr Swain also rode roughshod over another detailed report provided by one of the few specialist electric supply and vehicle-traction engineers in NZ. It highlighted numerous misleading technical errors included in reports provided by PwC and others including the Wellington Electricity network company. Those error-ridden reports gave a completely wrong impression that the overhead infrastructure and electric substations were about to fail and would cost many millions to replace. They were then used by GW staff and consultants to scare Councillors into making a decision to kill off the trolley buses in June 2017.

    This will cost all Wellingtonians dearly, in higher bus fares and more street pollution from the new diesel buses GW will approve. It will also contribute dramatically to increased climate change impacts from our region. This situation is driving value out of the trolley bus network and buses – it is to be deplored as a failure of leadership by our regional councillors.

  6. This needs to be straight forward that the Wellington bus network needs to be clean and low-carbon technologies. I was hoping that the GWRC should buy new buses that are hybrid and electric as well as keeping the trolleybuses, despite understanding that it’s multitasking for the trolley bus drivers. If GWRC are going to implement a full diesel network, this will become a disaster. Wellington has renewable energy plants, the wind turbines. They keep the Wellington city going, it build the economy, they spend running services and they didn’t suffer financial problems. There are other sectors that Wellington can look forward to, such as the runway extension as well as opening the Biz Dojo, the ICT industry. Despite that economic resources are mostly for the Wellington City Council, the Greater Wellington Regional Council should understand what we are trying to say. If they refuse to listen to us, then that’s not good. Wellington needs to stay clean and not be like Auckland, even Auckland will fix public transport system and keep the place clean. There should be no noises and no smell on Wellingtons future of public transport.

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