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.