Last Wednesday in Pioneer Square, officials from King County Metro took a test ride in one of Vancouver’s modern low-floor electric trolleybuses to see how it works on the wire and off the wire. Vancouver’s TransLink loaned the bus to Metro for examination as part of the Trolley Bus System Evaluation. Representatives from the bus and propulsion system manufacturer and Vancouver bus operator Coast Mountain Bus Company (CMBC) mingled with Metro staff to discuss operation and maintenance of the bus. Among the key people from Metro are their chief vehicle maintenance supervisor, trolley bus maintenance supervisor, and General Manager Kevin Desmond. They liked a lot of the amenities found on the bus. County Councilmember Larry Phillips, who sponsored the transit audit which led to this evaluation, was also present. Phillips is in favor of retaining the electric trolley system and modernizing the fleet.
Much more after the jump
The E40LFR bus is manufactured by New Flyer with electronic propulsion provided by Vossloh Kiepe. A 60-foot articulated low-floor version is also running in Vancouver. It is equipped with an Emergency Power Unit (EPU), a Nickel-Cadmium battery, that allows the bus to move for a short distance without being connected to an overhead power source. The battery is charged while the bus is connected to the overhead wire.
The bus performed two test runs. The first run had the bus run on wire from 2nd & Main up to 4th Ave, then wireless running the rest of the way to 5th Ave, S Jackson St and back to 2nd & Main (watch video). The second run followed the same path, entirely powered by the EPU (watch video of entire run). The bus was able to travel a distance of 8 city blocks (about 0.5 mile) with some hill climbing, off-wire, using 75% of the battery’s charge. On level ground, the maximum range is about a mile. After the test runs, someone jokingly called to run it up James St with its very steep incline. Another joked about running the bus in service during the evening rush hour but Metro’s lawyers would not like that.
The EPU on this bus is designed for emergency use only, due to the limitations of the battery. Technology has advanced since the bus was procured in 2003 with lithium-ion batteries and supercapacitors now available. They would allow greater range, reduced weight, faster charging and allow regular use. For example, Rome’s trolleybuses traverse a 3 km section of the city center off-wire. Their buses have a maximum range of 10 km off-wire.
The off-wire capability offers great flexibility in operations. Trolleybuses would be able to go around obstructions on their own power or turn around without a wired turnback loop. Diesel substitution to avoid construction work would be avoided, like Route 70 going diesel due to Mercer St construction or the frequent weekend motorization. With greater range, trolleybus service could even be extended beyond the overhead network. The poles can be lowered and raised automatically without the driver ever leaving the bus (kind of like how our old tunnel buses worked).
Other features of the Vancouver bus include ABS, traction control, roll-back protection, automatic hill holder, dewirement detection with quick pole lowering, more compact electronics and motor, and a stated capacity of 77 passengers. Passenger amenities include a low-floor design for easy boarding, slim profile seats for more leg room (rumors that we may be getting new style seats on the new buses), a spacious interior layout (2+1 seating), kneeling function and 1:4 slope wheelchair ramp (1:7 slope in future buses), rear-facing passive restraint system and a hook and strap system for two mobility device users, bike racks, passenger-operated rear doors, and an automated stop enunciator.
Many of these amenities are already on some Metro buses, like the low-floors and bike racks. Automated stop announcements are coming to all Metro buses within 18 months. On new seats, rumors are that newer Metro buses will be getting them. Some features, like 2+1 seating and a passive restraint system should, in my opinion, be standard on the urban-focused trolleybuses. I talked to a member on Metro’s Accessible Services Advisory Committee (ASAC) who liked the new trolleybus. I asked her about ASAC’s position on passive restraint systems and she told me they had a positive opinion on the system. In testing they’ve done and from other cities’ experience, most users who intially opposed it, liked it after actually using it. Addendum: The CMBC bus trainer also told me of the passive restraint’s popularity among riders over the hook system in conjunction with the automated stop enunciation system. The point I’m trying to make is they are not discriminatory as some critics make it to be. People who don’t like it continue to have a choice.
Aside from the vehicles, the existing overhead wire network will be considered in the evaluation. Rehabilitation of the network is ongoing. The current infrastructure is in good condition and is expected to last another 50 years.
Since Metro doesn’t have any experience with modern trolleybuses and only with hybrids, Trolleybus System Evaluation acting project manager Katie Chalmers said Metro learned a great deal about them from this borrowed bus. The project is studying two propulsion technologies to replace Metro’s aging trolley fleet: diesel-electric hybrids and modern electric trolleys with capability to go off the wire. The results from the project are expected to be released next March, followed by a public review process. The County Council will use the results to make an informed decision on the trolleybuses future by November 2011.