Unwired: the state of Wellington’s bus system. (ReVolt Wellington)



(Note: scroll to the bottom for the podcast episode. You can get to the ‘Imagine My Relief’ podcast with Spotify or using iTunes search)


Two things convinced me back in 2016 that NZ was headed in the wrong direction on climate change: the abandonment of the Trolley buses and the revert of the rail freight traffic between Hamilton and Palmerston North from electric to deisel.

I’ve been attending some very angry public meetings in the last couple of weeks. I got to meet Herwin Bongers of ReVolt Wellington, a group dedicated to the return of Wellington public transport to electricity. Wellington’s revamped bus system has been something of a disaster. I’m particularly engaged with this problem because of the trolley buses: a fleet of electric buses powered by overhead wires that have been climbing the hills of Wellington for more than 60 years.

Now that it’s gone, we get to pick through the remains of some very dubious decision making and try to understand what happened.

Public Transport is a very big climate change issue. While there is some emotional urge in me that wants the trollies back what is really at stake here is the future of transport. We know, after years of staring into this problem that the future is urban – that resources can be better conserved when we share. While the lifestyler may feel greener than the person living on Mount Vic we know that the townie emits far less carbon.

To that end our cities work better because they enable us to share our resources. Here’s a rough calculation: imagine that each of 60 trolley buses serviced the daily transport needs of only 100 people. That would equate to all of the electric cars in the country at the start of this year.

All of that progress, thrown out the window. The closest thing to a reason I could find was that the underground wiring for the existing system is a lower voltage that off the shelf trolley buses use. Yet till now our buses were always simple, inexpensive retrofits; the running gear in the trollies was from the eighties and since it has plenty of life left, will soon be used to power battery buses promised in the next two years. Which is to say, I’ve looked through a lot of paper and found zero reasons. I stand ready to discuss the parts of that with anyone but I can sense myself becoming boring so, maybe get in touch if you want that argument.

Due to immense pressure from public and (one assumes) the government, we expect to see some 80 battery buses in Wellington in the next two years. And here’s a prediction. If you’re not missing the trollies now wait until you see how the new buses handle some of the hilliest urban areas on earth.

Here’s a couple of statements about battery buses and hills – 2017 from the director of San Francisco Municipal Transport Operations.

‘it is factually incorrect and irresponsible to suggest that anyone knows that off wire electric buses are ready to operate in San Francisco’.

Or from the Prague Transport Company, after 140,000 kms of perfomance data.

‘hilly terrain uses up a lot of battery power and limits the usefulness of electric buses’

Is Wellington as hilly as San Fran or Prague. Yup. It really, really is.

There’s something more important here and I’m so fascinated by trolley buses that I nearly forgot to notice it. This new system broke public transport in basic functional ways. Herwin and I talked about Trollies mostly, the speakers at the last public meeting called out, literally point by point, the ways in which the new system broke the seven basic rules of public transport.

  • It takes me where I want to go
  • It takes me when I want to go
  • It is a good use of my time
  • It is a good use of my money
  • It respects me
  • I can trust it
  • It gives me freedom to change my plans

These rules are outlined in Jarret Walker’s book ‘Human Transit’ – I recommend you look him up on twitter, follow his blog or get the book yourself.

Remember a bus, even a deisel bus, is a much better use of resources than a car. If you prefer cars well good for you but please know that 30,000 people go to and from work each day in wellington and thats probably enough extra cars to bring us to gridlock. When you see bikes and buses remember they are freeing up space on the road for you, so don’t grudge them the bit of space they need.

Finally – I got to meet the unflappable Paul Eagle, MP for Rongotai. I started in on the trains with him and he said he’d join me for a talk. We’re getting progress here. Its hard to recall but in 2016 the National Party was treating climate change like a joke and so was the media. Tonight, in the midst of daily, real world problems like not being able to travel like a normal human in a western democracy, people were also getting up and making a noise about the electric future we’d been promised.

It turns out that we already had it. And now we have to make it again.

In the introduction to Human Transit Jarrett Walker says this:

Political leaders make good decisions when informed and caring citizens want them to.

So here’s to you, angry noisy people who came out and said this is not right, and we deserve better.


(just a smattering of the many suggestions at the Kilburnie meeting)

08:00 cast with a fleet that was 98% deisel
08:50 people said we were getting electric buses
10:15 numner 1 livability
10:50 me being an EV owner
11:05 you don't need to replace it
12:35 perturbed him - reports not backing up their own claims
13:15 emissions profile to go down by 30% - but didn't include CO2 - decisions you'd make if you didn't believe in climate change
16:55 single causal factor
17:05 irony of the carbon piece
19:00 'transport's only a small part of the problem'
19:40 break down of democratic process
21:20 its a way of saying the problem is very big
21:50 affects your descisions about buying an EV
22:59 PT is a state of mind
24:25 People living in Wellington who don't have cars (Welling Region)
24:34 Human Transit - frequency vs speed
26:20 Connection with oil company Anadarko
25:58 History of the trolley bus
30:37 Wrightspeed optics
34:35 Reasons the trollies had to go
05:35 30 Teardown
36:40 Wires look ugly  (visual vs actual pollution )
37:29 Graph of emissions
40:15 Euro emissions standards
40:35 Standard argumnts that some up
41:35 Neilson document on the real maintenance cost
43:53 Herwin about poles
45:23 Solutions available
46:05 Public Transport Operating Model
51:35 Looks like the right direction till you peel back the covers
53:02 No alternative to the trolley bus
54:15 What you do to a bus to call it green
56:53 Shaking the foundations - public meetings that have occurred
57:15 Councillors don't even live in the city
58:19 11 million bus uses per year
60:35 Solutions that were ready to go
61:25 Poles made from hardwood
63:40 Cities putting up trollies
64:35 No one should be forgiven for not treating climate change as a serious problem
64:51 RMA still not recognising CC is a problem
65:24 The Fell engine - running down of services
01:06:55 After so little investment, still better
01:08:13 You don't have to replace it
01:09:10 Number of buses - no mentioning deisel once
01:10:02 Pollution star rating
01:10:28 Graveyard of polluting buses for the next ten years
01:13:15 Petition on website
01:15:20 Thanks driver
01:19:35 Final words - common theme
01:25:15 The food today - hummus and pita bread