Seattle Trolley Bus, by Oran
Seattle Trolley Bus, by Oran

We asked someone to make the case for trolleys, and Orphan Road delivered.

First, Serial Catowner in three parts (1, 2, 3).  Catowner is a bit of a poet and I’m a bit of a bean counter, so I found Matt the Engineer’s breakdown of the audit a bit more to the point.

My thinking on this subject is still evolving, but some bullet points on my current position are below the jump.

  • I don’t see any evidence that there are ridership, speed, or TOD advantages to a trolley bus vs. a diesel bus.
  • There is a general preference in the affected communities for a trolley bus, although some people really hate the wires.
  • As bus type is a public policy decision, I think it’s fair to consider the externalities of the fuel that diesels burn, which probably neutralizes whatever cost advantages diesels or hybrids might have.
  • Although I don’t think there’s any sort of conspiracy, I’m not really convinced by the audit result that the lifecycle cost of a hybrid is lower, for the reasons Matt enumerates.
  • I’m out of the fuel price prediction game, and no one knows what gas will cost in 2014. However, the relative stability of electricity costs is in itself an important argument for trolleys, and a useful hedge against oil price volatility.
  • Canceling trolley service often leads to a neighborhood demanding that the wires come down, so there’s a capital cost in taking trolley service away. That seems like a really poor use of resources.
  • Trolley expansion is relatively inexpensive (I believe it’s about $1m/mile), but I probably would put that pretty far down the prioirity list for capital expenses. Things like Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes, more TVMs for Rapid Ride, and so on would provide a bigger payoff for riders and also save on operating costs by making the buses run faster. Of course, you also have Streetcars an order of magnitude in cost higher, with ridership and TOD advantages.

The upshot is that I think it would be poor public policy to get rid of the diesels trolleys, even if it means cutting a small number of trips elsewhere in the system. Can anyone convince me otherwise?

On a somewhat related note, the purported advantages of trolleys are yet another example where cost effectiveness and productivity are not the only value in the equation.  Trolleys are a case where the Seattle interests apparently cut against strict cost metrics, and when arguing about service cuts Seattle residents would do well to remember that.

65 Replies to “The Trolley Argument”

  1. I don’t see any evidence that there are ridership, speed, or TOD advantages to a trolley bus vs. a diesel bus.

    The average speed in revenue service miles per hour for a trolley bus according to the APTA 2009 factbook (based on 2007 data) is 7.2 MPH. For a diesel bus, it’s 12.6 MPH.

    Of course, these numbers are somewhat suspect given the (a) relatively small number of trolleybus routes nationwide vs diesel bus routes, (b) the fact that trolleybus routes tend to run in higher-congestion (urban) areas vs diesel buses which run on both highways and city streets and (c) trolleybuses are pretty effective in hilly places (like Seattle and SF) where speeds must be lower anyway.

    all the same, while i love trolleybuses and trolleybus systems, there are certainly times when i dislike them passionately (e.g. when buses bunch and cannot pass; when wires break; during windstorms; when reroutes are needed but require a push truck; when the bus [or driver] chronically dewires, when a route includes a ton of tricky switches, etc. etc.). there are places where trolleybuses can be useful and good, and places where perhaps they should be replaced with diesel service (or additional infrastructure for passing, etc.).

      1. My suspicion is that this entirely due to the city core thing. The routes that are trolleys are all in high density places, often where streetcars used to be.

      2. there may be a few places where it could be good to switch to diesel – the main one that jumps to mind is the #7 bus. i am not aware of hugehugehuge hills this route has to climb, and with the ever-shrinking headways and ever-present reliability problems, i always wondered why this route got stuck with trolleys (though the air quality is certainly a plus)

    1. The average speed numbers do not represent a valid comparison, for the reasons Andrew states. Diesel buses running on trolley routes would have very similar, if not slower, average speeds.

    2. The only comparison is a trolleybus vs a diesel bus on the same route. Trolleys get very slow going across the grated part of bridges. (Or at least they used to. I haven’t noticed it recently so maybe the new trolleys are better.) There are no trolleybuses on roads above 30 MPH (15th Ave W, Aurora, Sand Point Way, West Seattle bridge). Is this because the poles would fall off the wires too often? All this suggests trolleybuses are suitable only on dense routes.

      1. When the 43 is dieselized, the buses don’t run any faster, and they are slower in areas like climbing up 24th Ave.

      2. The bridges (University and Montlake) have special wires that sag when the bridge goes up. Because they are so wobbly, the entire bridge is considered special work so trolleys have to go slow across the bridge.

        I can get my 40 foot Gillig trolley up to 30mph relatively easily but it sounds pretty close to the top end. The poles don’t typically come off in straight wire but if they did at 40mph, I would imagine damage to the overhead, poles, and possibly surrounding vehicles would be likely.

        Dense routes with hills and/or lots of stops are where trolleys are best utilized.

  2. Trolley busses are quieter than diesel.
    Trolley busses are zero-emissions vehicles.
    Trolley busses are quite adept at heading up some of our larger hills. The diesel busses suck at hills.

    1. Electric buses have route stability, too. Our basic routes (except 44) are relatively unchanged since 1940. The possibilities for expansion within the city are numerous, adding quality of life (less noise and emissions) to more neighborhoods. For most places, the “visual pollution” argument is a red herring – if visual pollution in Madison Park is so important, how come those hideous high rises out in the lake are still standing after nearly a half a century?

      1. When Metro was thinking about replacing the 14 in Mt. Baker with a diesel 38, there were plenty of comments like “make sure you take the wire down, too.”

      2. Right, that’s an anti-transit argument, not a pro-transit argument. The same folks have power lines, and they’re not fighting to underground those.

      3. I don’t know that a consumer expressed preference for one form of transit over another is “anti-transit”. And it’s hard to argue that power lines are as intrusive/visible as trolley bus lines.

        The reality is that there ARE down-sides to trolley buses – including the visibility of the power lines.

        Me, I’m glad I have the opportunity to drive them before they’re gone (again).

      4. The purpose of having Route 38 operate the Mt. Baker Segment was to provide some East-West service in SE Seattle. The Mt. Baker riders did not want to lose their one seat ride service to downtown, so Route 14 continues to serve Mt. Baker, but at the expense of the Rt 38 whos span of service was severely cut.

      5. I can’t believe the wires are so objectionable. The wires tell me that a bus comes frequently, and I can see where it goes. And when I’m telling somebody who’s driving how to get somewhere, I can say “follow the bus wires to the QFC, then turn right”.

      6. I thought that those buildings (along with a tall building or two in the U District, and maybe Beacon Tower) were actually what led to stricter zoning in the 1960s or so, because people were outraged. But I can’t find the info about it at the moment.

      7. My memories of the late 1960s and early 1970s agrees. I know that a series of local and federal laws and regulations from the 1970s and 1980s evolved into what is now the shoreline protection legislation that governs use decisions today. I’m not sure very many Seattleites of that era were necessarily “outraged”, but they certainly were not happy. As usual here, even more then than now, people were re-active rather than pro-active and always nicely.

  3. I try to avoid screaming from the rooftops because, well, I did that during the Vietnam war and the war just kept on truckin’ until we’d trashed their place and ours. Comme sera, sera.

    But, I have a very strong feeling that in about 25 years, every part of transportation that can be electric will be electric.

    And that, or longer, is the kind of time framework these decisions need to be taken in.

    An interesting discussion of this kind of thing is found in Winston Churchill’s World Crisis, where he discusses the very painful (because of the costs to change) decision to switch from coal firing to oil firing firing for the Royal Navy. More in relation to our current situation with KCMetro is the case of the Milwaukee Road, which had a bad year at at time when copper was at a very high price- so they tore down the wire and sold it.

    It didn’t save them.

  4. Another advantage of trolley buses, similar to streetcars, is you can see where the bus goes. Similar to tracks, you know the trolley bus HAS to go here because the wires are there and you know where it goes because thats where the wires go. It gives people a sense of security and eliminates a bit of uncertainty that a diesel bus brings (like never showing up due to a random reroute!). But, it still has the disadvantage of being a bus…

    Vancouver BC has trolley bus wires that stretch for MILES into the suburbs and the public seems to live with the wires just fine. It also helps they use a lot sexier looking trolley buses than we do. Does anyone happen to have a map of the Van BC trolley system?

    Light rail > streetcar > trolley bus > car > diesel bus

    1. That’s a great point. It’s just like seeing tracks, and knowing you can get from one place with tracks to another.

    2. That was actually a disadvantage today. Seattle PD had all of southbound 3rd Ave closed between James and Yesler (or something like that–it was 2 whole blocks is all I remember). The diesel D60HF I was on was able to make a left and take 5th around it, but there were 3 trolleys lined up waiting, and I’m sure more pulled in behind them. My bus was about 15 minutes late; I’m sure the trolleys were 20 or more.

      But wait! We could solve this by simply throwing a couple of batteries under the hood. That way, they could drop the poles, drive a few blocks, and pop them back up. No need to dual mode the bus.

      1. Not KC Metro. If KCM decides to buy new trolley buses, hopefully this capability will be part of the new fleet, hence would not need push trucks for minor detours.

      2. Yep, I was just down in SF this weekend and watched a steady stream of trolley buses negotiate a two or three block stretch of street construction while off-wire.

    3. I agree with the argument that overhead wires let you know a bus will arrive at your location eventually, but with the wires spanning much of the Seattle area, I don’t think you can expand that argument to saying they also help you know that bus will get you to where you want to go.

      Maybe that’s not the point you’re trying to make, but the rail argument makes more sense in that regard for Seattle, if only for the reason that there is so little of it (rail).

    4. “Vancouver BC has trolley bus wires that stretch for MILES into the suburbs”

      All the trolley routes are within the city limits. On Hastings Street, the trolley transfers to a diesel bus at the Burnaby boundary. Vancouver’s trolley routes seem to cover a larger percentage of the city than Seattle’s do, but I think that’s because Vancouver is smaller and doesn’t have waterways and ridges slicing through the whole city. E.g., compare Vancouver’s 41st Street trolley with Seattle’s lack of a West Seattle – Beacon – Rainier trolley.

  5. Why is it only one person so far has mentioned air quality?

    Why the heck would you want to ditch your clean electric trolley coaches? Places that had them once and ditched them (namely us in Portland) regret it with every fume of diesel exhaust inhaled, especially in the confined spaces of downtown.

    1. Probably because the current bunch of hybrids put out so little emissions compared to the old (I remember the smell of Metro buses on rainy days in particular) is such a huge improvement – heck, our air quality in general in this part of the world is such a huge improvement over many others – that it’s not a huge argument for most.

    2. The health effects of diesel are bad, and the fact you don’t see the exhaust as much makes no difference. In Seattle the emissions from ships and conatiner trucks probably dwarf buses, but all the bus emissions happen right at the street level where people breath.

      This is going to be a big regulatory fight real soon.

  6. One strategy in moving to a less congested CBD is to start to limit access to zero emission or PZEV vehicles. Toward this end maintaining the wires downtown and the feeder routes that support it (like Queen Anne) are essential. Commercial vehicles like garbage collection could be permitted to use the lines. Of course they’d have to go “off wire” a fair amount and require some sort of energy storage technology. In general I think that’s a better way to go than passing wires. Dual fuel would be the most flexible for routes that need a significant reach away from downtown like cross Lake buses but these can make much better use of hybrid technology than the current hybrids. And plain old diesels (PODs) can have their emissions cleaned up the same when the current hybrids are, and should be!

  7. I heard that trolley routes were concentrated on the routes with big hill climbs (Queen Anne, Cap Hill) because it is cheaper to run trolleys than the mpg of a diesel driving up and down hill all day long. Not sure where/when I saw this.

    1. CoolJ,

      Trolleys are so superior in hill climbing that I’m surprised we’re even having this discussion. Diesels roar up the big hills, consuming huge amounts of fuel and blasting clouds of smog. Yes, the hybrids are better, and stronger because they can call on the batteries. And they have regen braking which provides a backup on the downhill trips.

      I simply would not ride a diesel bus down Jackson, Madison or Queen Anne. There are no do-overs if a brake line ruptures.

    2. Unfortunately they drive the diesel 30 up the big NE 55th hill all day long. It was a streetcar route but never made it to trolley bus (in fairness the 30 goes all the way to Magnuson Park, though).

      1. The “old” #8 Ravenna (today’s #30, more or less) went out 55th as far as about 40th or maybe even Sand Point until 1963 and it was most assuredly running under the wires, mostly w/ the Pullman electrics one of which is in the Metro historic vehicle collection. I think Oran has the 1960s overhead wire map on the STB Flickr pool.

      2. Yeah, looks like in 1941 there were separate routes, the 8 and something I guess just called “N” on Sand Point:
        Maybe “N” for “Navy”?

        The streetcar had a little bit different route, going on right of way on the south end of Ravenna Park north of NE 58th, at least until 1933 (it’s a trail now):

        Wires were gone by 1969:

    3. Nope. Trolleys are more expensive to maintain, mainly because of the infrastructure (wires, electrical substations, etc.).

      If cost winds up being the bottom line and there’s no huge re-spike in diesel prices – trolleys will go away.

  8. New flyer produces an E40LF (trolley). Why doesn’t Metro Lease one Trolley and and one comparable Hybrid or enough to support one trolley route for 6 mouths or so and see how a new trolley compares to a new hybrid.

  9. Of course the beancounters would say get rid of the trolleys, because like rail they have a high capital cost. Thats about all they look at, they dont (cant?) see the more intangable benefits of them, including:

    -longer vehicle lifespans with better overall MBDF (?), one would presume that since they are electic and dont have an engine/transmission to deal with the maintenace would be simpler and you would have a higher reilability with fewer vehicles OOS at any one time. We got 20 years out of the AMGenerals, i’d like to think we could get 20 years out of the gilligs and hopefully the breda’s. With more conventional equipment you would have already bought its replacement and probally be looking at replacing it again in the near future.

    -more stable energy prices. They are not subject to volitile spikes in fuel, which over the long term i think you will see get ot the $4.00/gal stage again and probally stay there. Somewhere in the 20 year lifespan of the coach that is anyway, and the electric prices will probally stay near the same for the life of the coach. another intangable item the beancounters (or anyone) have a hard time predicting

    -urban enviroment. Modern diesel coaches are very noisy, trolleys are near silent. One less noise to keep you up at night.

    -overall better MPG. I bet if you found a way to compare a diesel coaches MPG to KwH used on a trolley you would find the trolley probally beats the diesel.

    Now they do have their cons,
    -overhead. = Maintenace, de-energizng for overhead construction, visually obtrusive in some installations.

    -equipment capital cost. You could get two hybrids for one electric trolley, but the one electric trolley would probally outlive the hybrids.

    -electrical equipment. spendy, but you can probally get 50 years out of your investement, and really without pointing it out you rarely see the substations so they are visually unobtrusive

    Overall, they are a better deal and should be expanded across more lines. They are not perfect, like anything but with a supportive enviroment they can be just as flexible as more conventional services, while operating cleanly and quitely on the surface.

  10. “You could get two hybrids for one electric trolley, but the one electric trolley would probally outlive the hybrids.”

    At least part of that has to be efficiencies of scale. The APTA report cited above said that only 2 trolleybuses had been delivered the previous year. With a large order, it seems like that price should go down.

  11. Trolleys aren’t strictly zero emission vehicles, right? They use the existing power grid, which is NOT zero emission, but this strikes me as a major strength of the trolleys. Production of power is decoupled from the individual vehicles, ie reducing emissions of the power grid as a whole (something with momentum already, for many different reasons) reduces the effective emissions of the trolleys. Reducing effective emissions of the diesel fleet would involve upgrading or replacing each individual vehicle.

      1. But Jon’s point is an important one. Electric Trolley buses as does any vehicle powered by the grid is able to even out power distribution, using more of the energy that is used instead of allowing some of it to be wasted.

  12. you all like to talk about the electric trolley but not a word about the wires

    wires hold us down. the trolleys are just one more set to keep us here on the ground when we could be soaring

    and what about the fish? every day, millions of fish butt their heads against the base of gorge dam and bonneville and not-so-grand coulee and all the other monuments to european-style commerce. i bet the fish don’t care for the trolley buses. i bet they crave the diesel coaches or would if they knew something other than that concrete wall.

    i resent that our “public utility” burdens us with wires. i resent that our beautiful long nights are punctured by streetlights. streetlights keep us from the stars and they enable criminals. we’d all sleep better at night without them.

    we can make diesel from lots of things now. things that don’t eat and love and spawn. why are we still feeding at the teet of electric power? why is this 1930’s propaganda by the likes of city light and the bpa still allowed to set public policy?

    it’s not just about us. it’s about the night and the star and the salmon. pull down the wires and embrace the night.

    1. ok then but what about the birds and land based animals?… they hate the “diseaseal” exhaust, they say more ETBs please.

    2. I used to think I wanted the wires underground. Then I lived on Westlake N when they undergrounded. Turns out that in Seattle underground vaults have a tendency to fill with water and short out in big storms. Who knew?

      The streetlights should be a bigger issue than they are. Almost all American streetlights should be replaced with lights that do not pollute the sky with light, and this directed lighting is also more efficient. This would literally save the lives of millions of birds, among other benefits.

      However, having personally called the cops several times when I could see my neighbors cars being stolen in the middle of the night….

      Hydropower is maxed out. Future additions of renewable will come from solar and wind.

    3. “streetlights keep us from the stars and they enable criminals”

      Streets are safer now than they were before streetlights. When the poor had to live in pitch blackness all night (e.g., Edinburgh, London), middle-class people didn’t dare to walk around. The same thing in countries like Iraq that have electricity for only a few hours a day.

  13. there will probably be much more analysis between now and 2014, the expected replacement year for the two electric trolleybus fleets, articulated and standard.

    I hope the Council is cautious with the audit findings; the authors are themselves. it may be a case of garbage in; garbage out. that is, there may be a few flaws in the audit analysis. how can the life cycle cost of a hybrid coach be known at all; they are new vehicles. the auditors may have projected the current marginal cost of the trolley and hybrid fleets. (trolleys seem to be less costly per platform hour but more costly per platform mile). but is that statistically appropriate? the hybrids are not operated on the hilly, high ridership trolleybus routes with close stop spacing. the marginal cost of a hybrid fleet operated on the trolleybus routes is unknown. many hybrid miles are easy highway miles. the hybrids are a new fleet, while the two trolley fleets are relatively old, especially the bodies of the artics and the motors of the standards.

    a more valid study would compare the platform hour cost of new trolleybuses and new hybrids and measure many other factors and place economic values on them.

    the audit does not seem to account for the two types of federal grant awarded Metro for fixed guideway operation and maintenance. they could lose those funds without the trolleybuses. The FTA tends to provide about 80 percent of the purchase price of new buses, so the local marginal difference between trolley and hybrid is much less.

    the risk of higher petroleum prices and global warming both seem to weigh in favor of keeping the trolleybus.

    a new trolleybus fleet in 2014 would probably be low floor and faster loading. it would have some off wire capability. The Vancouver fleet has that.

    note that three agencies have recently chosen to renew their trolleybus fleets: SF Muni, Vancouver, and Boston MBTA. all did so before the recent spike in diesel price.

    the trolleybus is authetic to Seattle and well suited to its hills, ridership, and hydro power.

    1. i dont think most cities/agencies that have trolley buses today market/brand them enough as something special or unique. it wasnt long ago that streetcars were mixed in with buses on maps and route descriptions as if they were one in the same. even cable cars were seen as nothing special as late as the 40s and 50s, i dont think trolley buses have receieved the appreciation that they deserve. lets see trolley bus only maps much like streetcar only maps, lets see stop signage and shelters specifically mention trolley service, lets see transit agency websites listing routes mention whether it is a trolley bus route. when you pick up a schedule for one of the trolley routes in seattle it doesnt make one mention of the line being an ETB line.

      i also think the trolley buses almost have more in common with the old time streetcars than new streetcars like the SLUT or PS. trolleys run on the same routes that evolved from old streetcar routes in a radial fashion, run two way on almost all routes, serve streetcar suburbs while new streetcars typically run on one way couplets in the curb lane into former industrial neighborhoods with little streetcar service in the past.

  14. For 25 years I lived on, or within a block, of a major Seattle arterial. Not good.

    The electric buses have the possibility of making that “not good” into “good”. Right now you don’t want to live on an arterial because of the noise, but with the quiet modern equipment that is available, people could want to live on an arterial because of the transit.

    The real crisis today is that the buses also require a major capital investment, which has not been acknowledged or provided for. Whether you’re talking BRT or overhead wire, money must be spent to upgrade the bus experience. Realistically we’re talking about investments to last 25 years and 50 years. The diesel barely fits in the 25-year envelope, and not at all in the 50-year envelope.

    And the same thing applies to those 25-mile routes out into King County. At some point we need to stop subsidizing long bus routes and start subsidizing urban housing.

    The present structure is just exhibiting a failure that will recur regularly until proper financing is provided for a better plan.

  15. And… for those who’ve never ridden on one of our WWII vintage electrics:

    Trolley tours city’s nightlife

    The Metro Employees Historic Vehicle Association (MEHVA) is hosting a three-hour tour of Seattle’s distinctive and varied nightlife neighborhoods this Saturday, Sept. 26, beginning at 7 p.m.

    The historic trackless trolleys will tour through Pioneer Square, Broadway, lower Queen Anne and the University District with stops for photos and coffee.

    The trolleys depart from Pioneer Square at Second Avenue South and South Main Street. No reservations are accepted, and passengers will be boarded in arrival order until all buses are filled.

    Fares are $5 for all passengers over the age of 5. Metro transfers, tickets, or passes are not accepted. Please, do not bring food or beverages onboard the historic buses. For information, call the MEHVA hotline at (206) 684-1816, or visit the organization’s website.

  16. I’d like to highlight the noise-pollution advantage of the trolleys. Some of you have mentioned it, but I think it’s very important. Diesel buses are so loud they can be heard more than two blocks away, even when they’re not laboring to climb a hill. To increase density, we need to make the dense city as livable as possible. The noisier it is, the more stressful it is. Holding a conversation next to an idling diesel (outside it) or on an accelerating or climbing diesel (inside it) is hard on the vocal chords. Reducing noise pollution is worth some cost.

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