Trolleys are part of the solution

“European cities are steadily converting bus routes to trolleybus public transport“ was the message from Gunter Mackinger at a recent public meeting in Wellington. “Complete public transport systems cannot easily convert to fully battery-operated systems, and there is a significant problem with battery life and consequential waste disposal.”

Mackinger, an electric transport consultant and former general manager of Salzburg Railways, works with organizations such as the UITP (International Public Transport Organisation) and the German Government. He advocates trolleybuses and light rail (trams) as an essential green emission investment in modern liveable cities.

This is of special interest to Wellingtonians who are working to rescue Wellington’s trolleys which is currently threatened. If successful, it would be the biggest setback for public transport since the light rail system was removed fifty years ago. Mackinger’s statements were backed up by studies at three independent German universities.

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Mackinger gives examples of how Seattle, San Francisco, Mexico, and west European cities Salzburg, Linz, Luzern, Arnhem, Eberswalde and Bratislava are all purchasing new trolley buses.

Turkey has mandated trolley bus systems for smaller cities under 100,000 inhabitants, as well as modern light rail in the bigger cities. The Chinese Government has also mandated “all-electric” vehicles in major cities. Trolley buses are a part of the process and cities such as Beijing are replacing diesel and experimental battery buses with new trolleys. Guangzhou is undertaking trolleybus continuous network expansion. Shanghai, after deciding to remove trolleys, realised their error and are re-opening trolleybus lines.

Other electric transport modes fit well alongside trolleys – light rail, rapid transit, suburban rail, battery buses – sharing power supply infrastructure and facilities. Zurich, Lyon, San Francisco and Seattle use light rail as the ‘spine’ of their public transport systems, and then use trolleybuses for the heavy secondary routes. Battery bus systems are being developed for the shorter suburban feeder routes.

The NZ Bus intention to install Wrightspeed gas turbine-electric power generating sets into some trolleys and other buses in their nationwide fleet is commended as an initiative, but the technology has yet to prove itself in widespread bus fleet use. If the trials prove to be successful, we would urge NZ Bus to move rapidly onto converting diesel buses.

I call on NZ Bus to confirm that they will operate the Wrightspeed powertrain “fuel agnostic gas turbines” on CNG as this will help remove a major source of cancer-causing airborne diesel particles, including soot, and noxious gases which are dangerous to health. These diesel particles are associated with lung cancer and other lung disease, and contribute to heart disease and strokes.

Wellingtonians’ conversations on Lambton Quay and Willis Street can be compromised by the noise of diesel engines in close proximity” says Wellington architect, Chris Watson. “Quieter electric motors of are suitable for social networking on the golden mile, which speeds the flow of ideas in the capital.”

There are many technical aspects still to be explained if the story is not just a PR sham. Gas turbine generators generally emit more CO2 emissions than comparatively sized diesel engines, but emission savings can be achieved by having a smaller power turbine running against a constant load – the battery charging generator. I hope the vehicle design facilitates the turbine being stopped to allow battery-only operating through the centre of the city. Also we need to maximise the ‘plug-in’ charging opportunities from New Zealand’s renewable electricity network – this will be essential to achieve our greenhouse gas reduction targets.

The use of self contained bus electric drives in Wellington will also depend on Greater Wellington Regional Council requiring hybrid electric and/or battery electric vehicles of its bus network as an outcome of its contractural framework, and being ready to meet the extra costs involved. Tender documents are to be approved on June 29th, with the decision on successful tenders expected sometime before the end of this year. Tender documents are expected to be based on the Public Transport Plan already approved, which included the removal of the existing trolley “all-electric” trolleybus fleet.

However, Oxford University Head of the Energy and Power Group – Professor Malcolm McCulloch – has looked at the Wellington trolleybus network and sees it as having excellent potential. He says that they are a valuable public asset and dismisses criticism of them as being subject to political interpretation as obsolete technology. His advice is to validate the alternatives (i.e. hybrids-electric and battery-electric), while continuing to operate the trolley buses. When reconfigured with modern (lithium ion) batteries, trolleys would be able to run longer distances “off line”, providing more flexibility. Automatic re-attachment devices would further minimise delays.

An urgent review of the GWRC business case is needed. A new business case should concentrate on the east/west route as a base case for trolleys, then explore add-on options, and include the cost of modifications to increase the reliability of the power supply network.

Wellington has big renewable electricity resources within its boundaries, and can easily aim for a 100% electric transport system, which is not only the smart choice, but an ethical one, because of the reduction of greenhouse emissions.

Victor Komarovsky of Generation Zero says that the worldwide transition to electric vehicles can only accelerate after the CoP21 Paris Climate commitments for reducing emissions. “Some of my friends don’t get driving licences and they refuse to own cars. It is more important to have information technology with constant internet connection. We want Wellington to become a clean, green city. Electric public transport is the only possible way to do this.”

300 cities around the world manage trolley bus networks successfully and there is no reason why Wellington should not re-emerge to operate its system as well as other cities.

The current fleet of 57 dual rear axle trolley buses, owned by NZBus, started work in 2007/2008 with new low floor chassis. So they have at least 10 to 15 years of service life remaining, and this is confirmed by NZ Bus’s decision to utilise some chassis for the Wrightspeed powertrain.

The trolleys have good capacity and would be ideal for the proposed Karori/Seatoun trunk route. Keeping the all-electric trolleys and the overhead wires on that route, at least, would be a step towards a fully “all-electric” fleet in the future. Battery buses can only be as good as trolleys in terms of CO2 elimination if there is frequent recharging at stops, not using fossil-fuelled ‘top-ups’. The trolleybus power supply could provide that – but that infrastructure is exactly what the GWRC has decided to remove.

Note that this article is the opinion of the writer, and does not represent the view of GWRC


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