Community Post

Auditors say trolley buses cost more $ – possibly at risk?

Yesterday county auditors gave a preliminary presentation to the King County Council about the opportunity for new efficiencies at Metro. You can get a full overview at the Seattle Times, but one item in particular caught my eye. The auditors claim that the county could save $8.7 million a year by converting trolley buses to diesel hybrids. Trolley buses are the electrically powered vehicles that connect to wires above the roadway.

We’ve got a lot of trolley bus routes in our neighborhood, including the #2, #3, #4, and #14. As someone who lives within earshot of the diesel #48 route, I can tell you that low noise is a big advantage of the trolley buses. And it could be in my head, but I’ve always felt like I’ve received a better quality of ride on the electric buses vs. their fossil fuel brethren.

Full details of the Metro performance audit won’t be available until later in the month. But I spoke briefly to Kymber Waltmunson today, one of the auditors, who said that the cost savings of diesel vs. trolley buses come down to three main categories: 

  • The procurement costs are “significantly higher” for trolley buses. It’s not clear yet if that analysis includes replacing or reusing the electric motor that drives the buses. The new models put in use several years ago reused the motors from buses built in the 70s, saving significant funds.
  • There’s costs associated with maintenance of the overhead infrastructure of wires that power the trolley buses
  • $3.1 million in savings can be attributed to scheduling and operational flexibility of diesel vs. trolley buses. This is because the trolley buses can’t pass each other, can only turn around at certain points, etc.

Detailed figures on the cost savings of using cheap hydropower vs. diesel are not yet available. And the auditors make it clear that their analysis does not include social factors, such as the zero-emissions of electric vehicles, noise advantages, and other things that can’t be broken down to specific dollar amounts.

We’ll continue to track this issue and will dive into the details when the final report is made available. In the meantime, fans of trolley buses may want to make their feelings known to the King County Council ahead of time.

0 thoughts on “Auditors say trolley buses cost more $ – possibly at risk?

  1. No trolleys = less wires in the sky. We are held down by all the wires.

    Get rid of the streetlights while we’re at it. Porch lights and head lights can do the job.

  2. The extra cost of the street cars:

    1. The procurement costs of light rail and street cars

    2. Overhead wires AND tracks in the street. (SLUT is subject to a class action lawsuit from bicyclists, and I was part of a group of cyclists giving feedback on the capitol hill route which looks far more hazardous due to the hills)

    3 The LEAST flexible system you can buy, can’t go around anything, can’t turn around (except the bi-directional cars), can’t change the route

    This analysis looks like a solid refutation of light rail and street cars! Are they even aware of that, or are they so narrowly focussed they miss this? I fully expect that on another day, and in another context the same people would champion the advantages of electric rail.

  3. The trolleys don’t pollute our air – being environmentally responsible usually costs more. Moving to diesel hybrids would be a mistake. Cough * hack * wheeze

  4. I am speculating that this audit was totally bus-centric. And, this may be an example symptom of the disease of Seattle’s transportation infrastructure: lack of integration of bus, train, auto and bicycle system management.

    The elephant in the room of any “flexibility” argument with buses here, is that buses have to route around cars. This is also true for a chunk of the SLUT route, but things like scheduling look very different when there are significantly car-free paths for trains or buses.

    Where there are dedicated paths, transportation succeeds with more frequency and regularity, rather than a need for flexibility (which also can be read as a code-word for irregular and infrequent).

  5. Our region produces (and sells!) electricity, so if the oil prices go sky high again trolleys can become cheaper for us here. Also, using electricity more makes us more self-sustainable as a region.

  6. I suspect that if/when gas prices go up to $3-4/gallon again, the city will release a similar study showing how going back to trollies could save x-million dollars, etc. I’m not so concerned about whether trollies or street cars or hybrid buses are the trend the city want’s to follow long term. Any aging infrastructure needs to be updated eventually. I’m more concerned that this decision will be based more on current budget short falls, and less on the needs of the community, long run. I understand that saving 10 million dollars today is a good thing, I just hope it doesn’t mean spending $20 million tomorrow to regain the service left of the scrap heap.

  7. and rightly so. three words why: emissions, emissions, emissions. end of story…Metro came back yesterday saying so.

  8. The diesel buses have been proven by U of W researchers to harmful to humans and especially children. The #14 goes by childrens play parks and schools. I hope that Metro reconsiders to keep the trolley line buses.

  9. Trolleys provide service without the pollution and noise of the diesel buses. As far as I can tell the hybrid buses don’t run on battery power when they are not attached to wires. They are basically diesel buses and not an appropriate substitute If a hybrid bus with a battery that stores electricity and almost exclusively runs on electricity is eventually manufactured then there could be an advantage. It is sad that almost no mass transit options are manufactured in the US.

    Rails also have the same passing and fixed problems and yet are often considered desirable for some uses. I have noted that when one trolley must pass another, the one in front disconnects from the trolley line while the second one passes it.

    That part of the report was upsetting that the audit. Did the audit look at administrative and operations management costs or was just an audit of bus efficiency? I hope that the audit if for the entire agency.

  10. Based on the posts, I’m confused about what the trolleys are vs. the diesel busses. I live on 34th on the route for the 3, and we have overhead wires but not tracks on the road. Are those trolleys or diesel busses? You’ll forgive me: most of my adult life, I travelled by subway.

  11. I don’t believe it will happen for several reasons. The fleet is relatively new. Seattle has a hydro-electric system, much like San Fransisco. So the trackless trolleys are “totally” green. The price of electricity generated by hydro certainly isn’t as volatile and as subject to wide price fluctuations as oil. Foreign governments aren’t involved. Wars aren’t being fought {and lives lost} over hydro generated electricity!

    Further, transit management, as well as the public likes the trackless trolley system in Seattle. So I doubt they’ll swallow this nonsense from a consultant. But sadly, this is the kind of crap dished out by some consultants. And some places, such as Edmonton and Toronto, fell for it. But Toronto learned that hybrids aren’t the panacea that they were billed to be. And Edmonton has decided to scrap the hybrid idea and order straight Diesel buses. The transit industry in general isn’t as enamored with hybrids as it once was.

    Let’s hope Seattle doesn’t “fall” for this and this study joins many others on shelves collecting dust. Just imagine, consultants get “paid” for nonsense like this!

  12. If teases new hybrids are so wonderful let them start by replacing diesel busses. When and if they prove themselves then consider replacing the clean, efficient, silent, and more powerful trolleys without any stinky diesel fumes with diesel hybrids. The diesel hybrids still require diesel fuel with only a marginal improvement in mileage over normal diesel busses. Diesel busses and hybrids still require much more maintenance more often than the trolleys. The electric to run the trolleys comes from hydro and is very low cost in the Seattle area. Diesel fuel will only continue to cost more as time goes buy. Someone needs to look at the audit again and also look at the motives and agenda of the people who came with the juggled numbers to make a diesel hybrid look better.

  13. The #3 is an electric “trolley bus” route. You can tell them from the polls that connect the bus to the overhead wires. “Trolley buses” are different from trolleys (aka streetcars) in that the former have rubber tires, while the latter have steel wheels on steel rails.

    Most trolley bus routes in Seattle where originally streetcar routes before the rails were torn up in the 1940s, including the #3 line.

  14. Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco – three cities where trolley buses have survived against the unseemly haste to junk them in the rest of North America. Perhaps it is our west coast granola mentality. Vancouver and San Francisco have both increased their trolley bus fleets in recent years, Vancouver will open additional route miles on September 7th. Management has learned to live with their “inflexibility”, which with diesel buses is more of an imagined than real benefit. (Seriously, when did you see a diesel bus being turned around through a resdiential neighbourhood street?) What makes trolleybuses work in San Francisco and Vancouver is that there are a LOT of them – over 300 in SF and there will be 262 in Vancouver when the current order is delivered. The more you have, the cheaper each one becomes. Seattle’s relatively small, inner-city fleet is doomed to be expensive – the system is a far cry from the 300+ fleet that ran between 1940 and 1963, and which would have been dismantled altogether by 1970 had there not been a major outcry against closure of the electric system. Just as the country junked streetcars in the 30’s,40’s and 50’s and now welcomes them back, the trolley bus will make a comeback, if only enough people are aware of them and demand something better than a diesel bus. There is no such thing as a zero-emission diesel bus, not even a hybrid. Trolley buses powered by hydro electricity are indeed zero emission. Seattle could start the trend by installing new routes and buying more trolleybuses, not wasting time trying to figure out how to get rid of the ones you have.

  15. Trolley buses accelerate much faster than diesel buses. This means that you need fewer trolley buses than diesel buses for the same level of service. In turn, that means less capital investment in buses, fewer drivers, and less storage space at the depot. Did the audit consider the acceleration factor?

  16. In addition to all of the other advantages pointed out above, it should also be noted that trolley buses can handle going up steep hills much better than diesels (or diesel-electric hybrids). That’s one of the reasons why we still have trolley buses for the 2, 10/12, etc — imagine a diesel bus trying to get up Marion Street downtown between 1st and 6th Avenues.

  17. Some of the arguments made by these auditors regarding inflexibility of trackless trolleys are no longer valid. The auditors should leave transit operations to those experts who are knowledgeable in that field. Transit experts aren’t doing the “books” and auditors shouldn’t be doing transit planning. When in doubt, the auditors should consult with people who could “explain” things to them, so they don’t look foolish.

    The issue of trackless trolleys being inflexible was raised by the auditors. For the auditors information, many new trackless trolley fleets now have “off-wire” capability. This can take the form of batteries or auxiliary engines. Coupled with the use of automatic trolley poles, it is now common practice to short turn a trackless trolley where ever necessary. This is being done every day in such places as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dayton, Vancouver, Boston, etc. And it’s being done in many European and Asian cities.

  18. “As far as I can tell the hybrid buses don’t run on battery power when they are not attached to wires.”

    The hybrid buses are always partly running on battery power. They do not ever hook up to the grid and charge the batteries; the batteries are charged by a regenerative braking system every time the bus slows or stops, instead of just burning off the momentum as heat on the conventional drum brakes of most of the buses. system. This is the same way the hybrid system in a passenger car (like the Prius or Insight) works. The heavier the vehicle is, the more energy can be captured this way, so a 20,000 pound bus is ideal for such a system. Metro has measured roughly a 23% MPG improvement on their current hybrid buses over the conventional diesels; that also represents a 23% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. They also have better acceleration and better hill climbing abilities than conventional diesel buses.

    Metro currently operates 268 diesel-electric hybrid buses, a small fraction of their 1,300+ fleet. All are low-floor, 60″ long articulated buses, most of which are in use on long-haul north/south routes. It’s also worth noting that every bus purchased by Metro since 2004 has been a diesel-electric hybrid. Metro currently has on order over 700 more 60″ hybrids from New Flyer (which will replace all of the current diesel 60 footers), and 90 40″ hybrids from Daimler Buses North America (for testing, with plans to buy 500 more if they’re satisfactory). These new 40″ Daimler hybrids are already in use in New York City, with their transit authority reporting over a 30% improvement in fuel economy.

    So the technology is proven, tested, and sound. It’s definitely an improvement over conventional diesels. I’m skeptical, though, if they can beat out the electric trolley buses in the long term.

  19. Edmonton got rid of their trolleybuses back in March for this same foolishness! I hope Seattle doesn’t face this same fate! THAT would suck! My girlfriend and I were considering seeing the city sometime in the spring when my mom goes to perform there with her chorus, to check OUT the trolleybuses and the bus tunnels because I have NEVER been on a trolleybus before in my life EVER and WE used to have them in Toronto, but got rid of them in 1993, the same time as Hamilton did. Ever since seeing them in my home city Toronto, and my dad’s familiy’s home city Hamilton, I have been longing to ride one all my life to see what they are like, and how they differ from riding on a streetcar. I have only been on a STREETCAR and NEVER a trolleybus. If Seattle got rid of their’s it would be making it even LONGER for me to EVER have that chance and may be doomed to NEVER ride one for the rest of my life, which would SUCK!