31 October 2017

Requiem for the Wellington trolley bus

Trolley buses are almost iconic for Wellington.   

Wellington was the city that first had them in New Zealand (1924-1932 on one route, followed by the current system since 1950) and will be the last today.  I grew up with them, with my Mum sometimes taking me into town and back on them, and as a child I was fascinated by these vehicles that got energy from wires, were quiet and emitted no fumes.  I lived on a street on which they operated and regularly became "detached" from the wires as drivers went too quickly around the corner, with the old British made rigid overhead wires unable to cope with more than a snail like cornering.  

Trolley buses are nostalgic, the presence of the wires (visual pollution to some) indicates the permanency of the route (a bus will come eventually), and the mere fact they use pure electric technology means they are user friendly.  I've many fond memories of riding on trolley buses, sitting on Mum's lap while watching a Big Ben's Pies disc ad rolling back and forth above the corridor entrance of the bus.  The ride through the Hataitai trolley bus tunnel, pitch black, one lane, the only real chance the trolley buses got to ride at a decent speed, and then the memory of the obnoxious driver who shouted at me for not taking a seat at the back of the bus (he stopped and walked to the back of the bus to do this).  The prick.

However, that nostalgia is tempered by cost (10% more to operate under current oil prices, without including the cost of capital replacement), and the tendency of trolley buses to be slower than other vehicles on curves (Wellington motorists widely see them as the snails of the roads).  

Trolley buses were in all major New Zealand at one point, and New Plymouth. 

Four other cities in New Zealand had them. Christchurch from 1931 to 1956 was the first to go permanently, as the system needed renewal and there was little interest in expanding the network on this low density city. 

Christchurch trolley bus

New Plymouth was the smallest city with a system, running from 1950 till 1967 as one tram route was replaced with trolley buses, but again the costs of running one route in a small city weren't economy.  

ex. New Plymouth trolley bus restored on special trip on the Wellington system
Auckland started with Farmers setting up its own service, for free for customers, operating a loop from 1938 till 1967, joined from 1949 by the City Council replacing tram lines with trolley bus routes.  However, Auckland's system was plagued by a lack of capital renewal, as it relied almost entirely on the electrical system introduced in the 1900s with the electrical tram network.  So from the 1970s, trolley bus routes were closed until 1980 when the last route was closed.  Yet in parallel a decision had been made to replace the inner city network, including services to Parnell, Newmarket, Ponsonby and Herne Bay, with a brand new trolley bus system.  

Farmers Free trolley bus Auckland, owned by Farmers 1930s

Auckland Regional Authority (which had taken over the system some years before) ordered brand new overhead wires and buses, but in 1982 cancelled the lot and was stuck with a mini-system.   Wellington City Council bought the 20 buses at a discount price to replace some of its older trolley buses, and the new overhead wires were used to replace well worn wires in central Wellington.   Another success for the Auckland Regional Authority in politicised decision making on transport.

Never used in the city they were built for.  Auckland ordered Ansaldo Volvo B11M trolleybus
bought at a bargain price from ARA by Wellington City Transport late 1980s
Dunedin held out for two more years, it introduced trolley buses in 1950 also to replace trams, primarily because its hilly topography was better suited to the superior acceleration of trolley buses, than the diesel bus technology of the time.  However, Dunedin paralleled Auckland, with routes shifting to diesel operation as parts of the network needed repairs and the whole system was to be closed in 1980, deferred by the sudden oil crisis, which persuaded the Council to keep the trolley buses until 1982, before finally closing the system.

Dunedin trolley bus in 1978
Wellington was a bit different.  The 1924-1932 "trackless tram" line was a trial from Thornton to Kaiwharawhara on what is now known as the Hutt Road, it would have been extended further towards Ngaio, but the Railways Department objected to the competition so it wasn't permitted.  The modern system started in 1949 and was designed to replace the tram network.  As in Dunedin, trolley buses were much more suited to the hilly topography of Wellington compared to the underpowered, noisy and slow diesel buses of the time.   However, as with other cities, Wellington faced challenges as to the economics of trolley buses when there was a need for replacement buses (as the first generation of 1950s buses were at the end of their economic lives).  However, the oil crisis saw a decision made to buy new buses and 68 new Volvo B-58 trolley buses were ordered (with NZ made bodies), and not long afterwards the 20 Ansaldo Auckland buses became available, enabling the 1960s era BUT buses to be replaced as well.  With new overhead wires in the central city network, and new buses, the trolleybus system got a new lease of life.    Albeit that there were extensive teething problems, as drivers objected to the design of the bus windscreens, and there were constant breakdowns and complaints about noise and interference with AM car radios.

1950s era British United Traction (BUT) Wellington trolleybuses

The Volvo B-58 Wellington trolleybus, with NZ made bodywork

On top of that, the trolley bus network was expanded.  The Mornington route was extended to Kingston, the Newtown Park/Zoo route was electrified, but when the Northland route was extended it was done with diesels (and the electrified segment removed) and a few years later the original Wadestown to Roseneath trolley bus route was also removed, as Wadestown services routinely continued to Wilton.  Weekend and evening services which had been revived were discontinued, mainly to provide time for wire maintenance, although the central city overhead wire system doubled as infrastructure to carry an overhead suspended fibre optic telecommunications network.

By 2001 the issue of replacement came up again, but it was decided in 2004 to replace the Volvo B-58s, but the bodies were replaced as the electrics were still in good order.   Wellington Regional Council agreed to a ten year contract with Stagecoach to retain the trolley buses with a subsidy, because they cost more to operate with the cost of maintaining the overhead wires.  

Wellington's last type of trolley bus- Designline/Volvo at Lyall Bay terminus 2009

Now they are being scrapped, following advice from consultants (none of which have actually worked on operating trolley bus systems in other countries curiously).  Even though the buses themselves have many years of operating life left and almost 40% of the overhead wires had been replaced by 2014.  The electrical supply system is dated though and needs replacement and would cost over $50m to replace.

Yes, I would like them to have been retained, replaced and upgraded (and no doubt it would cost a fraction of the ludicrous plans for light rail in Auckland).  I would like there to be just one line kept for nostalgic purposes, but my claim for nostalgia doesn't mean taxpayers should have to pay for it.   Could something else have been done to save them?  Could experts with working knowledge of modern systems in other countries known of ways to operate and renew a system more economically than those who advised Wellington Regional Council?  Maybe, but the fundamentals around the electrical supply system wouldn't change.  It just isn't worth it to spend that much money on replacing those systems, for nostalgia, noise or to reduce pollution in a city which has good air quality primarily due to the weather! 

What IS disappointing, is that the system is being dismantled before the replacement vehicles are ready.  

So farewell Wellington trolley buses.  Maybe the enthusiasm to preserve them will reignite the nascent museum in Foxton (which lost momentum with the death of its founder and enthusiast Ian Little).   However, while economics may drive transport policy for Wellington, it's clear it has been completely abandoned by the government for its newfound fetish for trams - in Auckland.

So think this.  Why does it make sense to lay down track, install new overhead wire, for a system which is effectively a guided electric bus system, in Auckland?

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