Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

DEWIRED How Hamilton Came to Lose Their Electric Trolleybuses

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DEWIRED How Hamilton Came to Lose Their Electric Trolleybuses

HSR 69I usually subscribe to the “cock up” rather than the “conspiracy” theory of history. But in this case I did have some, admittedly peripheral involvement. At that time I was working for a firm of consulting engineers, and we were asked to check on the prices of trolleybuses. It seemed to me at the time that this was a very odd request. After all, the price of the bus is just one of several elements, and work we had been doing with GO Transit buses had been concentrating on life cycle cost. I was interested in getting our clients to look at a wider analysis. But in this case it was the client (Ministry of Transport Ontario) who insisted we limit our study to the price of the vehicle. So all we did was telephone manufacturers who had recently bid on North American trolleybus contracts.

It became clear that there was a distinct preference for natural gas buses at MTO. What was less clear was why. After all an electric trolleybus produces no emissions (although if the power is generated from coal there are emissions at the power station) and a CNG bus was more expensive than its diesel equivalent (about 30% premium) and, at that time, not well proven in service. Small volumes of orders and a lack of co-ordination between users meant that trolleys were nearly always custom built, and therefore about double the cost of a diesel bus. And that leaves out the cost of the overhead. But as the operator notes in his article, there are some distinct performance advantages, especially on steeply graded routes. A trolleybus does not carry its power source, and can draw more power as the load increases. So getting up a hill or pulling away from a stop with a full load presents no problems.

As a transport economist in Britain, I was used to monetising externalities, and other non market costs. I was a bit surprised that Canadians seemed reluctant to even discuss these issues – especially later when I worked on economic impact studies.HSR trolleybuses on King at McNab & Main November 1974

Oddly enough, once the Hamilton decision was pushed through we were asked, about a year later, to so the same work for the same client on the TTC TTC trolley 125trolleybuses. Once again I got the distinct impression that we were only being asked to provide support for a decision already made – which I discovered was not uncommon. The decision was also rushed as the supply of replacement buses was late – and some trolleys had to be borrowed from Edmonton trolleybus in Toronto Edmonton for the last year of service.

CNG buses need significant infrastructure – the gas in the supply being inadequately compressed for use in traffic. So considerable sums have to be spent on compressors and gas storage. Gas storage bottles on the bus add to weight (although this was reduced considerably when composites were used instead of steel) and the performance of the vehicles is poorer than a diesel engine of the same size since the energy value of the fuel is around 70% of diesel. Moreover, engine manufacturers in general were reluctant to share proprietary information with converters, so that most Two CNG buses at Stanley ParkCNG conversions were done on a trial and error basis – often on vehicles in service.

The most contentious issue for the trolley is the overhead. Though in most Canadian cities the wirescape is already extensive so the “visual intrusion” argument carries little weight. The point is more about cost – and the limitations on the bus being able to divert off route. In both Hamilton and Toronto I heard allegations that the overhead was being neglected in order to skew the decision – though I have seen no direct evidence to support this. In Vancouver, it was not a factor in the most recent trolley buying decision as the accepted wisdom was that it had remained well maintained throughout its life. It was much harder to justify stringing new wire. I did look at the prospects of extending some routes, since terminating at the city limits made no sense at all – other than “we’ve always done that”. But at roughly $1m a kilometer of plain line (no switches or “special work”) and not much additional ridership gained by eliminating transfers, I could not come up with a convincing cost benefit case. Especially since extensions to SkyTrain were either underway or under active consideration. For example, extending the Granville, Oak and Cambie trolleybuses to the airport was much less attractive than rapid transit. And, once the Boundary station was eliminated from the Millennium Line, ideas of extending wires along Lougheed to Gilmore or Brentwood went nowhere.

Vancouver did get one extension as part of the Stanley Park end of the Lion’s Gate project. I have always thought that extending the wires on 41st to UBC made sense, especially when the wires on 41st were in use for getting buses in and out of service at Oakridge, but the preference there was for express bus (#43) which trolleys cannot manage easily. So trolley fans must be content with a half a loaf. New Translink trolleys in Oakridge Depot Derek Cheung photo

Written by Stephen Rees

November 13, 2006 at 12:16 pm

One Response

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  1. Really interesting post.

    Thanks by the way for linking to me I just noticed on Technorati


    November 14, 2006 at 2:22 am

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