Wellington’s zero emission trolley buses are a political issue

The apparent lack of any rigorous analysis/business case for trolley buses by Greater Wellington Regional Council is a scandal.   The European Trolley Project outlines a straightforward and rigorous way of analysing the cost/benefit of trolley vs diesel, and concludes that, even without existing infrastructure, trolley is cheaper than diesel if a route has buses more than every 5 minutes, which the Golden Mile in Wellington certainly does.

GWRC publicly stated goal is an all-electric bus fleet. It follows that the council make an objective assessment of the trolley buses contribution to city transport needs and environmental impact.

The Sustainable Transport Committee on 21st March heard our request that a Business Case be carried out for Wellington’s trolley bus network, as the Council has not done this at any time during the process. The petition was supported by the Civic Trust, Sustainable Energy Forum, Living Streets Aotearoa, FIT, Save the Basin, OraTaiao and Dr Susan Krumdieck.

Despite discussion and some Councillor support, the response through the Chief Executive was to reaffirm the decision to not renew the trolley contracts on 30 June, apart from short term extensions to aid transition to a new fleet.

We are deeply saddened by Council’s unwillingness to assess objectively the value of Trolley Buses, and also the lack of transparency by the Chair maintaining progress towards a low emission fleet, when greenhouse emissions will increase with the demise of the trolley buses.

Why would you want the electric buses to be equipped with the heavy and expensive batteries to be eventually replaced by new ones, wasting the bus fleet time in charging the batteries, consequently needing many more of the these vehicles for serving a bus route. If you design a bus route properly according to the real travel demand, the travel patterns of people do not change for a substantial period of time, needing to change the routing. Consequently, use the well tested trolleybuses, which are extremely powerful, easy to handle and totally environmentally clean.

Congestion Free Wellington held its first public meeting on 25th May with strong support for the extension of our 100% clean and zero emission trolley buses on the east/west route at least until light rail should be commissioned.

The newly elected Wellington City Council transport portfolio chair Chris Calvi-Freeman, also put the arguments for concentrating the trolleys on the new e/w routes Karori to Miramar to the Regional Transport Committee.  NZBus owns the trolley buses and as the incumbent is to be awarded the e/w route, where the overhead wiring will remain largely intact.   The other trolley routes will be fragmented by the new routes that come into place with contracts on June 2018

Cr Calvi-Freeman failed to shift the entrenched view of GW transport chair and GWRC managers. Consequently, Mayor Justin Lester of WCC has continued his support for the mixed option of new roads to the airport, a vague commitment to put planning of light rail on the agenda and immediate removal of the trolley buses. Light rail takes 10 years to plan.  Retaining the trolleys on the e/w route could be a cost effective interim solution.

On 12th July,  DominionPost reported that the trolleys were in fact going to be replaced by “old polluting “ diesels for eight months or more, while NZBus continues to pursue the conversion of the trolley low floor chassis to a hybrid vehicle in spite of the major delays.

The Wrightspeed hybrid has been widely promoted as an electric vehicle, but it uses a gas diesel turbine to charge the electric wheel. Diesel use is estimated to be 65.75% that of the equivalent new Euro-6 bus with the turbo charger providing 89% of the energy needed, and the remainder from overnight charging.

However, this fuel consumption must remain uncertain until tested in service, as it depends on multiple factors such as air conditioning, driver performance and routes.  Regional councillors have now been informed that the first bus won’t be received by NZ Bus from Wrightspeed until after acceptance testing this November 2017. NZ Bus chief executive Zane Fulljames is reported in the DomPost as indicating the company would decide after that whether it would order the buses from Wrightspeed.  The intention is to then convert the remaining 57 trolley buses to Wrightspeed technology in time for the new bus contracts which start on 1 July 2018. “There was no telling when, or if, the new buses would be ready to go”, Fulljames said.

Wellington City Council (WCC) tender proposal for the removal over the year from November 2017 must surely be put on hold and the business case for trolley buses properly assessed. WCC has ownership of the Trolley Bus overhead electrical network through the Cable Car company.

Under the wires trolley photoCover photo of “Under the Wires” published by Alan Wickens

A letter to the DomPost picked up on the point that Wellington may come to be remembered as the only city to close down a trolleybus system after the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

More than 300 cities around world are operating and expanding trolley bus networks. They are more popular because they are clean, quiet and quick. Lyon, France has new trolley buses, San Francisco and Seattle have large trolley systems and Beijing and Shanghai Beijing are coverting failed battery buses to trolleys. Other cities such as Zurich and Istanbul, are building trolley buses with new technical developments to improve trolley bus performance.

Scoop looked at what the successful tender by Tranzit for the remainer for the routes might mean. “When you look at last week’s announcements about new bus contracts, the Tranzit plan is described as building 228 new buses, all of them diesel though with Euro 6 certification, the highest global emission (air quality) standard…”

Recent revelations relating to filters installed on vehicles, indicated that in the real world, performance was quite different to “in factory”.  Euro 5 and especially euro 6 filters are expensive to maintain on diesel buses, and the temptation will be to not renew so that their effectiveness will diminish over time. Euro 6 standards are still unable to remove the very small 2.5 micron particles which are responsible for cancers and respiratory disease leading to the WMO classifying diesel as a class one toxic carcinogenic equal to asbestos.  GWRC rejected our proposal for spot air quality tests in bus contracts. Thus there will be a jump in both greenhouse emissions and in particulates with more diesels on the golden mile.

Trolley buses are quiet, have higher passenger capacity and the existing low floor chassis are well liked by mothers with buggies, the elderly and disabled. Most importantly, they are zero emission vehicles.

Given that Piatra Neat in Romania reversed their closure decision in April this year after political troubles and protests and other cities of similar size such as Cagliari are introducing modern Solaris T12 trolley buses with much fanfare, Greater Wellington Regional Council should take head, and have a proper look at the Business Case for expanding and modernising the present trolley fleet.

The removal of the over the overhead trolley bus power supply must be put on hold while the business case for a modern trolley bus service as in Switzerland and many other cities is considered.

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