Kāore he pahi (there is no bus)

Some of the many suggestions at the Kilbirnie public meeting
Rachel is furious. She can’t get to work on the bus any more. Nor can she be sure of getting home. Stranded outside a supermarket, she called the council to she what happened to her bus. From the call centre she is told not to buy frozen goods any more. They will simply thaw while she waits.
She’s only one in a hall full of people angry about Wellington’s new bus system. We’re starting to learn some new phrases – posters at bus stops during Te Reo week teach us common phrases, ‘there is no bus’ and ‘the bus is full’.
Meanwhile those of us watching New Zealand’s progress towards zero carbon are almost lost for words. Its been eight years since Nissan introduced the Leaf, the forerunner in the move to electric cars, In the last three we’ve seen the used imports hit a crucial price point – a regular user can make one pay for itself in 3 or 4 years. Charge Net was created and now presents a thin but perfectly usable fast charging system across the country. The nation’s EV fleet rose to 6000 cars.
Now that Wellington’s zero carbon bus fleet of 60 trollies have gone, each providing transport for well over 100 people, we have taken a step back of the same magnitude. A plan to move to electric buses was attempted then abandoned before the trollies went away. Later it becomes clear that those buses were running on diesel anyway, and could only hope to be seen as progress in a country where electricity is made almost entirely from coal.
During this exercise we also learn that Wellington’s most exceptional feature is its hills, which are tough on wireless electric buses since they have to overcome the weight of batteries to climb them. Of those eventually promised to us, it seems unlikely many will see service above 150 metres, where trolley lines were created to solve the same problem. If they do make it into the hills they will damage the road surface (they weigh three tonnes without passengers) and spend some time each day out service as they recharge.
How was any of this allowed to happen? It turns out, the public transport planning is complex, and those engaged in it have to meet the needs of several masters at once.
Jarrett Walker, transport planner and author of the book ‘Human Transit’ points out the seven demands of public transportation. Without them the system simply winds up limited to servicing those who have no other option, the captive market.
– 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.
Sit through any of the recent public meetings and you can tick these bullet points over and over. The new system does not deliver on these requirements as well as the previous one. Another step backwards.
Walker makes some other observations that should sound familiar. One is that frequency, the number of times a bus runs on a particular line, is expensive. Run fewer buses, less often, servicing the same group of people, and the operating cost comes down. Typically this dwarfs the cost of capital and is part of the calculus of public transport. Introduce a double decker, for example, and you may avoid the cost of running a second bus.
If that saving can offset the impositions of the bus, then you’re on to a winner. But these taller buses can’t make it through tunnels linking the city to its most populous suburbs; they also see service on Brooklyn hill: a 200 metre climb where the added emissions and damage to roads create a separate cost.
The other parts of this calculus appear to have been forgotten entirely, along with any considerations around climate change. For a start, the issues around congestion in the city. Transport planners are familiar with ‘Schrodinger’s Road Space’ that turns thirteen lanes of traffic into three by replacing cars with buses and cycle lanes. The affect seems impossible but only because we think so much about the benefit of cars that we forget their price. A commuter’s space requirement is tiny until they get behind the wheel.
Created by 21st Century City
What goals did the GWRC set themselves for the new system? It seems to come back to the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM), a bit of legislation that saw the service being split across a group of operators, under the assumption that the competition would create a better service overall. It seems a strange idea for something as consolidated as a cities’ public transport and I would love to know whether this model has worked anywhere else. It seems that the trollies were a victim of this model, that the playing field might be leveled without them. Which makes about as much sense as that sounds.
Were the city’s congestion to be considered as a problem that might be addressed by increasing public transport, we would have seen a very different system this year.
Were the cost of maintenance to enter into the calculations the number trollies ought to have increased since they outperform both battery and diesel vehicles in every possible measure, largely as a consequence of Wellington’s topography but also, in part because New Zealand’s carbon debt for electricity production is very low, some eighty percent of it coming from renewable, low carbon sources.
We forget this, but battery-less electric vehicles are so resistant to wear and tear that service lives for the trollies were three times as long as those of the diesels, and much of the running gear was re-used from generation to generation. Service lives of substation components were forty years under full load, leaving only the cost of maintenance to the overhead lines to consider. It wasn’t.
Poorly maintained lines were one of the causes of de-wirings and that, along with the many other remedies (fiberglass poles, re-gen braking, self retracting poles) were not extended across the fleet. That along with the generally poorer cosmetic condition caused us to fall out of love with the trollies over the years.
Were emissions to be seen as a serious and life threatening problem, we would simply not be investing in large fleets of diesel buses. It is true that we live in a time where diesel is the most adaptable out-of-the box solution for buses, and the alternatives require some problem solving to implement. But its clearly a problem worth solving, and one where part of the solution was right in front of us.
After considerable pressure about electric buses the Council promised eighty over the next two and a half years. Fifty of those will be re-purposed former trolley buses, which, somewhat conveniently, already sport electrical running gear and just require batteries. One of these has already been seen gracing our streets. It seems unlikely we will see these in the hills, however. Battery buses were trialled in San Francisco, the hilliest city in North America. They were declared unfit for purpose. Wellington is far hillier than San Francisco.
Look for a city as topographically challenged as Wellington, NZ and you find the greatest irony of all. The hilliest city in all of the America’s is Valparaiso, Chile. They installed a trolley system in the 1950s, just as we did in Wellington. Many of the original Pullman buses are still running there.
Maybe battery electric buses will work in the hills of Wellington. Eventually. But for now there are choices to be made. Its clear that the GWRC is being taken back to the drawing board to come up with some new plans for the buses and the hills. When they make up a list of options it ought to include a full installation of a trolley bus system much like the one we had. If only for a point of reference, since we clearly know a few things about them.
We know they worked, that they got by on little maintenance and that their main bug bear was fixable. We know they worked cleanly and quietly for 68 years in an extraordinary location. And last of all, we know that real reason for their removal can’t have been good. If it were surely we would have been told about it.

This report from Allan Neilson, KiwiRail’s former “Manager Traction and Electrical” (retired 2015) describes all components in the Trolleybus system and their states at time of decommissioning


Jarrett Walker, author of the book ‘Human Transit’ runs a blog of the same name: https://humantransit.org/