There’s a sort of grim inevitability in the news today that GWRC plans to kill off the trolley buses in Wellington. Following on from the tedious decision that the answer to Wellington’s Public Transport spine is bigger, faster buses in their own dedicated lanes, the logical thing to do would be to find out what sort of vehicles they would be, before making the decision to axe one of the options. But trolley buses have never been given a level playing field to operate on. Chronically underfunded for years, Wellington Cable, who own the lines, has only been given tiny 3 year contracts for years, negating the chance for any meaningful long-term investment. Greater Wellington Council have been planning this execution for years. None the less, a round of “consultation” is beginning this week, to ask us Wellingtonians what we think of this, although the decision has already been made.

Personally, I’m inclined to just tell them to bugger off and leave our trolley buses alone.

With the exception of an few who prefer diesel to electric, most home grown Wellingtonians seem to prefer the use of trolley buses. There’s something about the completeness of the system – we live in a windy city, we have the world’s most efficient wind farm on our doorstep, we use that wind to create our electricity, and we use that electricity to enable our buses to go. Plus, they’re quiet, efficient, smooth, and slow enough to be comfortable. I moved to Wellington, out of a preference for a city that still had time for a trolley bus and working train system, rather than go to Auckland with its hideous reliance on motorways and cars and diesel trains and diesel buses. I will be immensely sad to see the end of the trolley buses.

The diesel engine is a wonderful invention, lauded by Robbie Coltrane in a TV series a decade ago, where he noted its ability to keep going forever, utilize second-hand cooking oil as fuel, and combine maximum torque-ness with the ability to scale up to massive size. There is no equal for a diesel Cummins or Caterpillar when it comes to trucks, diggers, front end loaders or gigantic earth movers. It is, however, a poor choice for domestic buses, especially if you are cycling along side one in a busy bus-lane. If not perfectly tuned, clouds of sooty black particulate spew out of the back end. Diesel dust that is proven to have some pretty nasty health effects on those who live near and breath in the fumes.

There are some other options for bus propulsion, of course. There is the potential use of CNG or LPG, both of which New Zealand has been using and testing for a number of years, and while CNG is produced here, and is cleaner burning, smells sweeter, and causes less damage to the environment, for reasons that I never quite understand, New Zealand has all but abandoned it as a fuel, in favour of LPG which we have to import.

There’s probably a gas turbine option as well, which I know keeps getting discussed, but I’m really not cognizant of the advantages or disadvantages of that as a reliable transport system.

And then there is battery power. Every small thing has a battery now. Watches have a battery. Phones have a battery. Cameras have a battery. Even solar cells need to have a battery. And of course, every car and bus has a battery. Battery technology has come a long way since the invention of the lead acid battery, except for car owners. Every single car on the road in New Zealand still has a lead acid battery. I don’t think I have seen an electric Tesla on the road in New Zealand yet, although they would be the exception. Elon Musk’s use of lithium-ion batteries in the Tesla has been one of the revolutionary things about the last 10 years, and just recently he announced a new battery plant at Tesla that would massively ramp up production of this room of battery.

But even though the councils have announced that trolley bus wires will be coming down, on the assumption that buses may still be able to be battery powered, there is not much in the way of reliable battery power for buses. A BRT large fast high capacity modern bus is still a huge amount of weight to push around, and I’m not seeing reliable reports of bus battery systems that can work day in, day out, up and down hills, and recharge in an instant – at least, not as reliably as a connected electrical supply, or a diesel engine.

There is talk of wireless conduction of electricity, which is being tested by University of Auckland, but from what I understand, it is still a long way off being able to be used as a practical everyday solution. Large capacitors are imbedded in the roadway, or in the parking area, and through the magic of snake and mirrors, or more likely electromagnetism, the battery gets charged. Don’t try and tell me that system will be affordable…

And lastly, I’ve got to say, there is the option of electric overhead cabling. No, not a trolley bus wire, which requires two cables, and long poles to connect, but just the single wire system that we have on our electric powered trains, connected to by a pantograph. Hugely more flexible and easier to use than a trolley bus wire, and if the money is put into the maintenance of the system, I see no reason why it should not be able to work.

Key thing is, we need to have a system that is reliable and will last the distance, even given the uncertainty of what our city will look like in 50 or a 100 years. My money would be on electricity, rather than oil.

Tagged in: