"Trolley wire 'Trailer', by VeloBusDriver

As just about everyone has emailed us, SDOT is running a survey on the Electric Trolley Buses.  There’s also a fact sheet here.

A lot of people here are very passionate about the trolleys.  I like them, for various reasons, but I don’t talk about them much because I don’t feel competent to win a hardheaded, bean-counting argument about them.*  It’s certainly a more marginal case than the slam dunk that high-quality light rail is.

My previous lukewarm support for trolleys is here.

*Alert readers may note that I’ve been similarly silent about the streetcars.

165 Replies to “SDOT Trolley Survey”

      1. Long as you’re going (sic) 5mph or less, sure.

        Then again – the speedo on my bus always reads at leat 3MPH while I’m standing still.

  1. (moved from the most recent Open Thread):

    The question was asked: “How serious is Metro about elminating the ETB’s?”

    How serious will depend on the level of community support along the trolley routes for keeping them. I would especially expect a pretty strong outcry from folks in Queen Anne (surprise, surprise), Madrona, Mt. Baker and Summit (less as it’s mostly apts.) as well as probably the folks on 15th north of John St. towards Volunteer Park (the 10) and along 19th (the 12).

    The bottom line *is* the bottom line – there is money to be saved – at least shorter term – by replacing trolleys with hybrids coming from stimulus fund purchases. I’m wondering if what we may end up with rather than seeing the entire ETB fleet scrapped might be the longer runs that spend more time on busy arterials going hybrid – such as the 7, the 36, 43, 44 and 48 going away and the shuttle hops (1, 2, 3, 10, 12) remaining as 40′ trolleys.

    I wonder too if the added cost of the ETB fleet has factored in the projected replacement year of 2012, and if the cost couldn’t be reduced by pushing that back and keeping at least part of the existing Gilligs in service for a few more yars (the Bredas should all be blown up on back to back episodes of “Myth Busters”).

    1. There was a big outcry in just the part of Mt. Baker that was proposed to be cut from the route, so I can imagine a major outcry along a large part of the route if it was proposed to be replaced with hybrids.

    2. Considering that trolleys are way more efficient, and the power is hydro not petro, and global warming is upon us, this should be a non-issue even if trolleys are more expensive.

    3. I’ll go full time and return to part time after 7 months to put myself back at the bottom of the part time seniority list if they actually replace the Gillig trolleys in 2012. (I’d eat my hat but frankly, that doesn’t sounds too difficult) They are simply too new and relatively trouble free. The Bredas, on the other hand…..

      About the only route that makes sense to convert in my mind is the 44. It has relatively little shared wire. The limited number of 44’s that also do a 43 could simply run hybrids. Any routes that go downtown and use all of that shared wire down there make sense to keep. Really long routes that don’t share wire, and thus the cost of maintaining that wire, may make sense to convert.

      That said, I stand by my assertion that expanding the fleet makes more sense. The problem we’ve got is that the cost of maintaining the wire isn’t spread among enough routes. Adding *more* routes is how you decrease your cost per service hour, not cutting back.

      1. The 7 is a close second – if not in first place – on the amount of dedicated wire for a single route. For the 44, it’s Husky Stadium to the Ballard locks; for the 7 it’s Jackson and Rainier all the way down past Henderson. Somehow the 7 seems longer.

      2. I’ve always wondered about the 44 being trolley (except maybe a long time ago it was all one really long 43). The only thing that comes to my mind is that when they left the 44 (43) as a trolley, perhaps someone at sometime when a decision was made was thinking keeping Route 44 a trolley would make sense if the 15 and 18 would again become a trolley.

      3. Kaleci,

        It was one really long 43 for years. The route was broken because the 44 part is too beset by traffic, making the 43 part unreliable for trips downtown.

        However, IMO replacing trolleys with diesels on the 44 would be a big mistake, just because of all that traffic. The trolleys are lots faster departing a stop, so they can pull into a smaller gap without fouling the already hideous traffic on 45th.

      4. Trolley routes do not need to have a lot of shared segments to justify trolley wire infrastructure, so long as the service justifies short headways, and is in a mature neighborhood (routes won’t be changing.) If there are hills, that increases the value of the trolley. The route 44 qualifies as it is at least 15 minute headways 7 days a week, 15 hours a day on weekdays. Route 7 definitely also qualifies.

      5. If you look at an *OLD* trolley map, the 15 and 18 were trolley routes. That wire was pulled out in the 70’s. I think the wire also went over to West Seattle – I’ll see if I can get a picture of an ancient wire map.

      6. Notice the old “30” wasn’t a trolley. Most of the 30 covered what the 44 does now. Back then, it continued on to Laurelhurst, which is probably why it wasn’t a trolley.

      7. My thought on expanding trolley service is to up frequency on most routes. Add wire on Denny, Madison east of 19th, and 23rd between John and Cherry. Then reroute existing routes along the lines of the Rapid Trolley Network. In addition the sort of enhancements RapidRide lines will receive such as BAT lanes, signal priority, queue jumping, and some off-board payment and real-time arrival information for the busiest stops should be considered.

      8. ABSOLUTELY. Couldn’t agree more, Chris. I think it would be a struggle to get the wire down to Madison Park (given they actually supported tearing it out) but all the rest of the suggested locations would support it.

      9. Well the Madison section is more “nice to have” than anything else. Replacing the E/W portion of the 8 and the section of the 48 along 23rd with ETB service is much more important.

        Oh and I think looping the South end of the 7 over to Rainier Beach station along Henderson rather than running it up into Skyway would be a good idea.

      10. Can you explain what the Gillig and Bredas are?

        Isn’t the 44 and 43 using those ancient white trolley buses still? And isn’t that the point of trolley buses (well, besides quieter, faster acceleration, less point source pollution) is that they last forever? Why would metro want to get rid of buses that will last 30+ years to replace them with buses that will need to be replaced in 10? And how could it be cheaper to replace with new petrol buses when those trolley buses seemingly have tons of life left in them and rely on cheap hydro?

      11. Metro vehicles explained at http://metro.kingcounty.gov/am/vehicles/vehicles.html

        The Gilligs are the high-floor 40-ft trolley buses that began operating in 2002. They used rebuilt motors from the previous generation of Metro’s trolley buses. They look like the diesel version except they have trolley poles on the roof.

        The Bredas are the 60-ft articulated high-floor trolley buses currently in use. They were converted from the former dual-mode tunnel buses and replaced the MAN articulated buses (those ancient white trolley buses) around 2004-2005.

      12. Hah, they talk about Seattle Transit replacing trolley buses with diesels. Doomed to repeat it, eh?

      13. kirkman,

        The Bredas were an Italian creation originally purchased for dual use – as diesels outside and trolleys throug the transit tunnel. For a wide variety of reasons (generally agreed upon to be “engineering screwups”) the Bredas really aren’t suited for either, but to save face a number of years ago, the in-service Bredas were converted to electric only; their diesel plants being removed and they were pressed into service in the 43, 44, 49 and 7 routes.

        They’re complete crap.

      14. Bredas in the U.S. are crap. Look at LA Metro, MUNI’s and Boston MBTA’s light rail cars, Atlanta and Washington Metro’s subway cars, and our duo-mode buses. All have had at least one of reliability problems, safety problems, over price and delivery delays.

      15. One major problem with the Bredas here in Seattle: the Fire Department insisted that for tunnel use they must all have solid concrete floors. As a result they are the heaviest coaches in the United States. Yet they’re used on hilly routes. No wonder they wear out!

      16. You’re kidding about the concrete floors I hope. That sounds more like Breda making a stupid decision about how to meet fireproofing requirements, lord knows they made plenty of other silly engineering decisions.

        So why don’t the Hybrid coaches or Link vehicles have concrete floors? Did SFD adopt more reasonable requirements?

    4. I’d like to see frequencies on the first hill and capitol hill runs be dramtically increased. e.g. every 10 minutes. Your idea might allow that to happen.

    5. 48 isn’t ETB… I think they should split the route at the U District and make the southern half ETB. It would inconvenience me but lessen delays so I might actually be able to get to school faster.
      True, there are short-term savings, but in the long term, especially as gas prices go up, we’ll be wishing we stuck with the ETBs.

  2. Better to keep the electric trolleys, because they’re quieter. The hybrids are still too noisy.

  3. The wires also give you the same effect as the rails do – it shows that an investment has been made and that public transit is available in that neighborhood – a visible reminder even when there isn’t a bus present. And, like rails, it shows a longer-term commitment. It’s much easier to unbolt a little stop marker than it is to unwire an area.

  4. It is difficult to hear my iPod when riding in the back of a diesel bus. On a trolley, I have no problems at all.

    Anyone know what the decibel level is there?

  5. Are there any places where the trolleybuses cross the light rail route? Are there compatibility issues there? Would such routing even be useful?

    1. SLU tram at Westlake and Virginia/Stewart and again at Fairview and Valley. All over in SF. Should not be a problem unless naysayers make it one.

      1. Actually, this is a larger problem here than in the instances you mentioned because of how much higher voltage Link runs on than trolley buses.

      2. Take a look at this picture of a trolleybus-streetcar wire junction at Fairview and Valley. The wires don’t touch each other at all. I think the Stewart and Virginia intersections use similar junctions, but I couldn’t find a good picture.

      3. Yes, it’s the same there. The only real complication is that the trolley bus needs to make sure it’s lined up head-on as an angular approach could clip the jump-through and damage overhead or at a minimum cause a dewire at a pretty complex traffic intersection. Currently this only impacts the 70, which runs Gilligs only. Not sure if Bredas would perform as well as tracking the rear of the longer articulated coach is a bit more of a challenge for the driver. Essentially you’re trying to be aware of what’s happening 65+ feet behind you and 8 feet or so up in the air – all blind.

      4. Sorry – that’d be 8 feet up in the air – over and above the top of the bus itself. It’s more like almost 18 feet up in the air from the ground.

      5. Here’s a picture of a complex trolleybus / streetcar junction in Zurich. Pretty much everything within the city is either a streetcar or trolleybus, so there is a lot of complex overhead like this. There are many places in the central city where trolleybuses and streetcars share the same routes and platforms. If you scroll to the next photo in the gallery you can see a picture of one of Zurich’s double-articulated trolleybuses.


        Although rare, I can think of one place where a trolleybus route crosses the S-Bahn, which has 25,000v overhead. Not a place where you’d want your trolley poles to come off the wires.

      6. Edmonton had trolleycoach, pantagraph crossings that were reilably in use for a number of years. The seattle installations, while functional were poorly engineered from what i heard and are a freqent cause of problem. The voltage diffrencital shouldent be that big of a deal so long as its insulated properly. Afterall we ran the waterfront streetcar alongside trolleycaoches, and the streetcar is 600VDC while trolleycoache sare 700-750 VDC

    2. Link Light rail uses 1500V, trolleys 700V, SLU 700V. That’s why the 36 ends at Othello Station. It can’t cross MLK to get to Rainier Av S. It works in SF because their Breda streetcars and trolley buses use the same voltage.

      1. I’ve heard there are locations in Europe where different voltages cross. Willing to bet it can be done without extravagance.

      2. In Australia (Melbourne I believe) their light rail system crosses their electrified rail network without any problems

  6. The best replacement for ETBs is Hydrogen powered fuel cell buses.

    This gives the benefits of pollution free travel coupled with independence from wires.

    A fuel cell is in effect, its own generating system utilizing hydrogen.

    Vancouver is building a fleet of hydrogen buses for the Winter Olympics and many other cities are starting to adopt them.

      1. No, you use solar energy to create electricity to store energy in hydrogen to create electricity.

        It’s all about stored energy. Abundant, clean – and portable.


      2. You lose energy in each step of energy conversion. It’s inefficient.

        First the efficiency of converting solar energy to electricity. It’s around 40% max for photovoltaic cells and 70-90% for thermal solar .

        Then the efficiency of using electricity to power the electrolysis to get the hydrogen. It’s around 25-40%.

        Then to convert the hydrogen into useful electricity. Another bit on energy is lost.

        My numbers may be off depending on the technology used but the point remains, energy is lost when it’s converted. Also see Bernie’s comment below.

      3. So – are we basically at the point where you guys only believe in using means of transportation that utilizes electricity that’s transported directly from the source of generation to the load via cables?

      4. Jeff stop trying to pick fights. Your tone is always so hostile. Calm down. I was simply making the point that every time you convert from one form of energy to another you loose a significant percentage of the energy.

        I think that Oran’s figures are optimist at best. For example photovoltaic cell are around 20% efficiency (40% is around the record). If you create the hyrogen at the bus base you would still have the same transmission loss as with a trolley and hydrogen is a low density fuel source so then you have to expensive storage in the bus.

        Trolleys are here, now and have a proven track record. No point moving away from them.

      5. Jeff,

        We already have the infrastructure and it is mature, so why scrap it for something that’s the opposite? The audit is flawed and it acknowledges that it doesn’t include quality of life and environmental factors in the cost and benefits of trolleys. That is something the “bottom line” fails to account for yet people value it so much.

      6. Oran,

        The needs of communities are always responding to new technological developments. I’m not sure that I agree on existing infrastructure – even developing new rail lines, new ETB lines etc. do demand more infrastructure – be it the need for new sources of power generation or the means to deliver that power.

        I guess I’d come down on the side of innovation, particularly that which is potentially world-shaking, green, and functional.

        I agree 100% on your comment regarding the “bottom line” not accounting for many things, including the desires of the community and other unquantifiables. IMO, arguments for further development of rail/streetcar solutions, as well as the protection/expansion of other existing options such as ETB’s will be better served by a strengthened focus on these unquantifiables rather than bottom line arguments.

      7. Oran,

        So you’re anti-infrastructure?

        LOL – absolutely not. Not sure how anyone could draw that conclusion from my comments. I merely point out that examination, exploration and adoption of new innovations doesn’t negate the reality that even looking at new solutions involves expansion and development of NEW infrastructure.

      8. Ditto examination, exploration and adoption of existing options – like say – rail/streetcars. Rails are infrastructure. Wires are infrastructure. Power generation is infrastructure. Traffic management is – well – infrastructure. Saying that this “already exists” doesn’t account for expansion and/or creation of new routes – which need NEW infrastructure.

      9. Just testing you, Jeff.

        My point is the technology isn’t ready yet. Vancouver’s implementation is fairly small scale (20 buses) compared to what some are proposing for Seattle (157 buses with mix of articulated buses).

      10. Passed, with flying colors.

        I’m with innovation and did not mean to be against new tech. Anyway to reduce the use of non-renewable fossil fuels is a good thing. For now, we haven’t reached the limits of trolley technology and we might as well take advantage of that.

      11. “So – are we basically at the point where you guys only believe in using means of transportation that utilizes electricity that’s transported directly from the source of generation to the load via cables?”

        If you have a sufficiently large volume of traffic, the cost of the cables pays for itself in a few years in efficiency benefits. So, for sufficiently large traffic volumes, *I* would say absolutely yes. For small volumes, no.

        I’m surprised we don’t have cars with trolleypoles. :-)

      12. I’m surprised we don’t have cars with trolleypoles. :-)

        Now there’s a thought.

        I wonder though if much of the lukewarm feelings out there (even among transit advocates) regarding trolleys and innovations like electric cars is that they are too car-like. When the ideal is fewer cars (rather than fewer carbons), anything car-like (doesn’t run on rails) isn’t as favored as rail solutions. Kind of like how true vegans feel about field roast, tofurky and meat substitutes.

      13. Jeff,

        Just in the bus arena, I put much more emphasis on Bus-only and HOV lanes than trolleys.

    1. The problem with hydrogen is that it is not pollution-free or greenhouse gas-free, or anywhere close to it. Production of hydrogen has a similar carbon footprint to diesel – not to mention that hydrogen is produced from non-renewable natural gas.

      1. It currently is produced from natural gas. But the Nocera method introduced last year by an MIT scientist shows that buy using the chemistry of photosynthesis we can efficiently use sunlight and water.

        That said, even if it is produced from natural gas, that process can be handled remotely. Yet, the hydrogen is burned in the cities and metro areas so no pollution — and no overhead wires.

    2. I disagree.

      Seattle is extremely hilly. ETBs have the necessary torque to get up the hills without much trouble … the same CANNOT be said for other types of buses.

      1. Fuel cells generate electricity that drives motors. So electric buses in general all have that ability. The larger issue is with energy storage. With electricity from trolley overhead, an ETB essentially has unlimited range within the wire network and can draw more power on-demand when going up steep hills (subject to substation capacity).

        Batteries and fuel cell buses need to be recharged or refueled and have limited range. I doubt they can generate the surge of energy to accelerate a fully loaded articulated bus up a steep hill from a stop.

      2. Capacitors, fancy word for batteries, is the way to go. Figure a 1/2 hour charge and you’re basicly wire free. Recharge times can be down in the 2-3 minute range. Current technology would produce very viable routes with wires covering maybe 50%. You might have to deal with a few 3 minute layovers but so what. That would be overcome by eliminating the bunching effect.

      3. We had a 40′ flyer hybrid that used ultra capacitors instead of batteries here a couple of summers ago. All ancillary equipment was high voltage electric powered – no power take off from engine required to run anything. Don’t know for sure but it seemed to have been designed for all electric use at some point though we never operated it as such in the limited testing we did.

      4. that was my point … all other bus types would really suffer going up the Counterbalance or up to First Hill, etc …

      5. Fuels cells also add weight to the bus, which then requires more power to carry the extra load.

      6. Gordon,

        Depends on what you mean by “much trouble”. The 2x is usually run as a high-floor artic, and gets up Queen Anne just fine, although not as spiffily as the Gillig I drive. Not sure “spiffy” is the best argument though.

        The diesels – flawed though they are – are turbo-charged, and can actually handle hills better than most give them credit for.

      7. Hey now, I’m a 2x rider and sometimes feel I can walk up the Counterbalance faster than the 2x can drive. It’s functional, especially when empty, but on a sardine-packed commute hour bus… it’s wasting peak service time.

        Oh, and there’s a reason the 2x doesn’t make any stops until the top of the hill. Yes, it’s an express, but also I can’t imagine that thing getting moving from a stop in the middle of the hill. Well I can imagine it, but it makes me a little nauseous to do so (the burning clutch, the sliding backwards, easing to a stop, slooooowly gaining forward momentum).

    3. With a fuel cell you’re still using a transmission. Ask any diesel coach driver what the biggest point of failure is and they’ll usually say the transmission.

      The ETBs drive directly – no transmission – so they really make sense on hilly routes.

      1. I’m pretty sure that depends on the particular model of fuel cell vehicle in question. Since fuel cells put out electricity there is no reason the motors can’t be direct drive like the ETBs.

        There are also series hybrid buses that use a generator and electric motors instead of a conventional transmission. The transmission losses are higher than with a mechanical transmission, but you can use a smaller engine, run it at constant speed, and use regenerative braking. Of course you can do all of that with parallel hybrids like the DE60LFs Metro has bought a bunch of too.

  7. Hydrogen is simply a way to store and transport energy, and is not a source of energy per se (like fossil fuels or hydro power). There are no ‘hydrogen wells’. Most hydrogen in the US is created from reformed natural gas, and the ‘well to wheel’ ratio for hydrogen is low due to inefficient storage and conversion processes. Depending on the study, electric is two to three times as efficient as hydrogen for vehicle transport.

    This chart shows how far hydrogen fuel cell efficiency is behind electric.


  8. Hydrogen can come from water, split by wind and solar.


    Honda about to try out new home hydrogen refueling station

    “Honda is working on a next-generation hydrogen refueling station aimed at showing American homeowners how they could run their cars on hydrogen made out of sunshine and water. It’s supposed to be unveiled in about a month.”

    If cars can, why not buses.

    1. According to EPA, electricity is over 10% more efficient than hydrogen – even when that electricity is produced by the nationwide “average” mix of methods, which is mostly through burning coal and natural gas. See http://www.epa.gov/otaq/renewablefuels/420f07035.htm

      Trolley wires don’t bother most people much. Some like ’em, due to the sense of permanance mentioned earlier by another poster.

      1. You have no concept of conservation of energy. Given a glass of water, how do you; extract, store and transport the hydrogen? Gosh golly, I guess you’d need an energy source! You can’t feed water into a fuel cell. You can, via catalytic reaction, use natural gas. Study up on energy potential and come back when you have a basic understanding of why water is not an energy source.

      2. Bernie,

        I believe that the concept of conservation of energy is alive and well among those who are interested in seeing expansion of hydrogen-cell technologies. Regarding the lack of 100% (or even 50%) efficiency though, ultimately the question is – so what?

        Even hydroelectric power has efficiency issues, as well as environmental impact. For that matter – so does your own body when you eat a Big Mac (or say a macrobiotic wrap made with all organic ingredients – you DO crap, don’t you? Ever weigh it in proportion to intake?).

        Cleaner transportation is good. Portable transportation (no matter how nifty you think that electric rail is) is good. Not burning fossil fuels is good.

      3. “Ever weigh it in proportion to intake?” Psst: that’s conservation of mass. And if I understand your implication, you’re wrong – adding up all of your waste products plus any extra body weight will exactly equal your intake.

      4. Wow, that link must have been bought and paid for by the corn lobby. “Electricity” is wedged between “sugar ethanol” and “gasous hydrogen”. Let’s see, about 30% of the northwest’s “electricity” is generated by burning coal… Or maybe they’re talking about “electricity” from currant bushes ;-) “Gasous hydrogen”, hmmm, we go out and harvest that with nets? Brazil has done well with ethanol derived from high sugar content crops (not corn).

    2. Yeah, hydrogen can come from water split by wind and solar. So, convert wind or solar to electricity… even 50% efficiency is unlikely, the universe is a harsh place. Now, transmit that electicity (or worse try to store it) and again you lose. Finally you get to convert water to wine hydrogen. Again let’s assume a really generous 50%. Oops, down to 25% of the original. Now you have to move and store it. Let’s say there are pipelines and we don’t even account of the energy required to build those pipelines. At least another 10% hit. Then you have to transfer (i.e. pump) the hydrogen into the cars/buses. Now you’re down to at best 20% efficiency and you’re going to burn that in an engine that’s likely far less that 50% efficiency. Doesn’t work. Wildest dreams you’re 10% overall efficient on a process that’s dubious to begin with.

    3. Here’s the article on the Vancouver Olympics fuel cell buses in Whistler http://www.canada.com/topics/sports/story.html?id=7b9c39e1-7de0-4184-af7a-21c6610670e5&k=69154

      “Each bus will cost $2.1 million, about four times the price of a diesel bus, said Ron Harmer, vice-president of technical services for B.C. Transit. Trolley buses cost about $1.4 million.”

      Then there’s the cost of the hydrogen and the limited range.

      “Eight hydrogen tanks will hold about 60 kilograms of hydrogen, good for 500 kilometres of travel. But with current hydrogen prices between $10 and $20 per kilogram, a day’s fill-up could be as much as $1,200.”

      A typical diesel bus has about 100-125 gallons of storage. At $3/gallon, a fill up costs $300-$375. At 4 mpg (hybrid), that’s good for 400 to 500 miles of travel, more than the 310 miles (500 km) of the fuel cell bus. ETBs don’t have to worry about refueling.

      The technology is not yet ready to replace 159 ETBs running on the city’s busiest routes and most challenging terrain. Especially not before extensive testing of such a bus is done to see if it can handle Seattle’s demands.

      1. There was something recently about hydrogen fuel cell buses down at Fort Lewis. It was a total government give-away. Energy sources to choose from… Coal, oil, nuclear. That’s pretty much it and nuclear is a push because development of any nuclear plant in this country has been on hold for half a century. Can’t build more hydro. Oil is uncertain… Electricity = Coal. Don’t think so, then tell us when the excess demand will come from.

      2. We do have a state renewable energy (non-hydro) portfolio standard of 15% by 2020. It’s currently 3%. About 75% of the state’s electricity comes from hydro. The rest are from coal, nuclear, and natural gas. Oil hasn’t been widely used for electricity generation since the OPEC oil shocks.

        We only have one major coal power plant in operation. Environmental groups successfully fought and stopped a new coal plant in Kalama. Any new coal plant is going to face opposition from these groups.

        I’ll bet on natural gas and renewables in this state. If they don’t happen then we’ll buy power from outside which may or may not be from coal.

        Data: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/state/state_energy_profiles.cfm?sid=WA

  9. expansion of ETBs would likely be the 11, 15, 18? any others? any new routes? what other routes make sense for conversion that havent been discussed?

    would it likely be the same as the proposed early 1980s trolley expansion that never occured? i think oran posted a scan of the map somewhere.

    1. I always wondered why the 8 wasn’t electrified since lower queen anne is and Capitol hill is … perhaps it is a clearance issue on Denny Way …

      1. I think because it has only really become a higher frequency route like the other trolley routes over the last few years.

    2. I think the 48 would be a good candidate for electrification. My Rt. 48 Electrification map (http://skitch.com/ljsmith/ntna3/48-electrification) shows how much of the route is already electrified. Coupled with my proposal to split the 48 in the U District, it would be simple to electrify the sections of road needed to have a Mt. Baker-NE 50th St ETB route 48, and a Campus Parkway-Loyal Heights hybrid route 47. Or, it could be coordinated with the opening of the UW Link station, and have a Mt. Baker-UW Station ETB route and a Uw Station-Loyal Heights hybrid route.

      1. I’d still like to see some of the 44 runs or some of the northwest 48 runs be coupled with the new U-District to Redmond to create a one-seat Microsoft Express.

    3. I have my doubts about electrifying the 15 and 18 routes.

      For starters, they go down freight arterials, at higher speeds than the neighborhood trolleys. Can the electrification system co-exist with large trucks?

      Second, will the investment be short-lived due to the construction of BRT? I think the 15 and 18 are actually slated for removal.

      And will the Magnolia Community Club try to veto anything that happens on 15th Ave NW? They seem to think that road is their private property to do with and park on as they wish.

  10. Has anyone documented the methodology that was used to assertion that diesel buses are cheaper than the trolleys? Is the measure was done on a per-mile basis, does the average for diesel buses include freeway routes like 41, 255, 150, 194 etc which are going to have a lower cost per mile with higher average speeds? Or did they limit themselves to routes with similar operating characteristics to the trolleys, e.g. comparing 8, 48, 11, with lower speeds etc? I don’t really see that diesels would have any lower operating costs in similar service. There is maintenance of the trolley wire, but that would be be offset by lower maintenance costs of electric buses – there aren’t as many components to maintain and replace on an electric vehicle. Capital costs of trolleys could be higher, but so is the expected service life.

    It seems like there should be a good understanding of the economics before an irreversible decision is made. If the trolley wire comes down or isn’t maintained, it likely becomes very expensive and therefore unlikely to bring it back.

    If the economics aren’t compelling or are based on faulty accounting, it would be wrong to discard the environmental benefits (less noise and no pollution).

    Hydrogen fuel cells are a red herring to this discussion. They aren’t mature. There’s no reason to abandon the trolley infrastructure until an alternate technology is superior and mature, and today neither hybrids nor hydrogen fuel cells nor other battery/capacitor systems meet that test.

    1. I took a look at their study and posted my observations here. There are seriously bad assumptions in the study, and it really feels like King County is trying to kill off electric buses for some reason other than cost – then doctoring numbers to fit their needs.

  11. Prediction: Trolley buses years are numbered. Another, more logical-sounding reason will be given, but the true reason for their elimination will be that they, and all their overhead wires, don’t fit the aesthetic vision for the city.

    1. Fortunately, King County does not run the city. If they did, your prediction might be accurate.

    2. I predict the trolley bus system will survive for quite a long time. S-DOT seems to be trying to rally up grass roots support for the trolleys (which seems to be working) and Metro may just be playing politics to get the city to pick up some of the costs.

      I’m excited about the prospects of streetcar system that is integrated with a revised trolley bus network. More technically minded commenter have previously mentioned that the First Hill Streetcar is being planned for compatibility with trolley bus network. So I think there is a long term commitment to maintaining the system.

      1. I’m still wondering about the possibility of the City of Seattle fully adopting both existing and future streetcar lines, and the ETB’s.

        Would be interested in seeing them re-integrate out of the County bureaucracy.

    3. “they, and all their overhead wires, don’t fit the aesthetic vision for the city.”

      Who says? The trolley wires are reminiscent of streetcars and cable cars, and are part of the Queen Anne and Capitol Hill aesthetic. It makes it look more like San Francisco or old Seattle, and it’s partly who so many people want to live in those areas. Even in the outer parts, the trolley wires on 45th and Rainier make it look more like Vancouver, and that’s a draw to some people, and makes them wish the trolley network would be extended. (Trolleys were even more of an attraction in the 80s when they were smooth and almost silent, so riding them felt significantly different than diesel buses. This was lost in the new models that have fans running constantly.)

  12. This is really kind of funny. Most everybody here agrees that only a sap would have failed to vote for a subway in 1970. But the present is a different matter- Martin Duke is skeptical about electric buses and streetcars- “Who knows, maybe it’s some kind of fad”- and Brent wonders if they’ll be replaced by BRT.

    I guess part of this is a kind of “battered woman” syndrome on the part of Seattleites. Ask someone whether they would prefer an electric or a diesel in their neighborhood and they’ll say “What’s that? I couldn’t hear you with that airplane overhead!”

    To me there are two or three no-brainers here. First is the idea of selling the capital plant to fund daily operations- the classic last move of a dying corporation, public or private.

    Second would be continuing to run diesel buses in a city that measures pollution by the ton, now compounded by peak oil and global warming that is already killing the world’s corals. How many wake-up calls do we need?

    Third would be the provision of quality transit, i.e., clean quiet electric- and that means building the infrastructure to supply the current at the point of use. Behind the buses and the overhead is the building of substations, transformers, and supply lines, and developing the sources of supply with long-term contracts.

    I’ve heard that the Swiss learned a lesson from WW I, built electric, and made it through WW II on one tank car full of oil. But strange to say, devoting such a large part of their GDP to building electric did not make them a poor people!

    In fact, quite the reverse….

    1. “Brent wonders if they’ll be replaced by BRT”

      The BRT-Ballard plan is already being executed. And light rail from Ballard to either downtown or UW is being prepared for a vote. However, a local bus will still be needed for places in between the rail stops (compare the 8 on MLK).

      I fully agree Cat Owner’s your points about the long-term sustainability and economy of wired electric vehicles.

      “I’ve heard that the Swiss learned a lesson from WW I, built electric, and made it through WW II on one tank car full of oil.”

      And Europe learned about transportation efficiency during the 1970s oil crisis. Germany started building streetcar-subways even in small cities after that, and the European intercity network is famous (anywhere to anywhere, including many airports). This made it easier for Europeans to cope with the latest recession.

      One advantage of (diesel) buses occured to me this morning. The ability to easily move bus routes is generally considered a bad thing because it doesn’t encourage walkable density at stops the way rail does. But if we converted the current bus network to streetcars as-is, it would cement the inefficiencies in the routes. The flexibility of buses allows us to improve the routes before converting them.

      1. Mike,

        The flexibility of buses allows us to improve the routes before converting them.

        Uh-oh. Now you’ve done it.

        You’ve said the “F-word”.

      2. “The flexibility of buses allows us to improve the routes before converting them.” (considers the 80 years or so these lines have stayed exactly where they are, starts holding breath)

      3. Looking at this map, there’s the 1, 2, 3, 4…

        (ok, at least 69 years and not 80, but then the bus trolleys were built mostly from the streetcar lines)

      4. Here’s two shots from Paul Dorpat of Fairview Ave N (circa 1920 and 2008):


        In 1920, it was a streetcar line (already around 30 years old I believe) from downtown to the U-District; the same route the 70 runs now, 90 years later.

        I guess it’s irony that the SLUT takes a slightly different route down Westlake. Clearly a new streetcar line is just more flexible than an existing bus route, which can’t move just stops that have been there for over 100 years.

      5. The 36 was split from the 1 in the 80s or early 90s. The 12 was split from the
        13. The 1 and 2 used to run full time on Queen Anne and the 13 was an
        evening/Sunday shuttle; now the 2 and 13 run full time and the 1 is a shuttle.
        New wires were added to create the 9 and split the 70 from the 71/72/73. The
        south ends of the 4, 14, and 48 were extended (even before Link). The 6/359/360
        were consolidated into the 358. The 17 and 26/28 traded places on Westlake and
        Dexter. Alki has had several revisions, sometimes the 37 to downtown, other
        times a West Seattle loop. The 74/30 was extensively changed. “30” and “31”
        have refered to several different U-district routes at different times. Buses
        were moved off Montlake Boulevard due to congestion.

        Most of the buses do follow the old streetcar routes, more or less. Stops are rarely eliminated (except to space them wider). In that sense things have remained the same. But routes have been sliced and diced pretty regularly. And let’s applaud the new crosstown routes — the 8, 30, and 75 — which immediately became so popular they added service on them.

    2. Catowner,

      I’m not sure where you’re getting that I’m skeptical. The quote you attribute to me is out of thin air. And in the post above I speak of “lukewarm support.”

      The big things for me are right-of-way and quality of ride. The ETBs don’t do much on either count. Streetcars at least get you the latter, at much higher cost.

      But as I said, I support them. My main reaction is “meh.”

      As for peak oil, etc, I don’t know that the next decade of oil prices will bring and neither do you. That said, I think the ETBs are useful hedge against price upswings, another thing I said in the post.

      1. To you, that’s lukewarm support- to me, that’s skepticism. To me, it takes an actively skeptical approach to discount so heavily the factors I listed.

        But, y’know, whatever. I’m (somewhat reluctantly) retired. Everything that’s bad about cheap oil for you is good for me. AGW is bad, but Puget Sound is so different from what it was that I’ve already felt that pain.

        But, I will say, there was a wiseguy here a while ago who suggested that if I knew what oil prices would do, I should invest in oil futures and get rich. Actually, I already did that, in a sense- after the gas lines of the 70s I decided never to be a hostage to the automobile to make a living. And that decision paid off pretty well for me.

        But even as a fairly sturdy skeptic, I can’t believe oil prices are going anywhere but up.

      2. But don’t forget: Oil prices will go up, but there are other sources of energy that may be tapped into. Natural Gas to Liquids plants are being built which produce a “clean diesel” which is roughly equivalent to the ultra low-sulfur Metro fuels their buses with. Long term, natural gas will become scarcer. But sadly, we don’t seem to learn so in the mid-term future I could see a time where “clean diesel” made from natural gas will keep prices stable or even drop them. Hopefully, we will wise up and get a carbon tax in place, but I’m not at all confident about that possibility.

      3. Hey, I’m ready- my diesel car is celebrating its 30th this year, with only 270k on the clock- and the actual clock, incidentally, still keeps perfect time. In sharp contrast to every digital clock in the house.

        Like almost everything else I own, it will be obsolete before it’s worn out.

      4. Natural Gas to Liquids is a horribly inefficient and expensive process…. and natural gas prices will keep going up even in the short term. Plus which, gas is most efficiently used for heating, and heating will take the lion’s share of it.

        Either we start burning much more coal, which dooms the planet, or all fossil fuel prices go straight up.

      5. “After the gas lines of the 70s I decided never to be a hostage to the automobile to make a living.”

        Catowner, don’t you live in Kitsap County now? How do you minimize car use over there?

  13. Does anyone know if we’ll have to pay for carbon offsets if we switch from electric to diesel buses? I’m surprised there isn’t greater support on the blog for the trolleys. While not streetcars, the overhead infrastructure does make them harder to move. This is helpful from a real estate perspective as one of the reasons that rail uplifts property values is that it is difficult to move and hence a long term amenity.

    1. I’m surprised there isn’t greater support on the blog for the trolleys.

      Well, I’m only speaking for myself here. There are certainly a lot of people in the commenter community that are very passionate about it. I think a few of the bloggers are too, but they haven’t seen fit to write a post about it.

      1. The only reason I stayed away from posting on this particular item is conflict of interest (I work at SDOT).

        We have had posts in the past arguing in support of the trolleys.

    2. Seattle still has a goal of being carbon neutral and purchases offsets for their carbon emissions. Nothing that I am aware of forces the city to do this so they don’t have to offset emissions associated with a conversion. However, if they don’t, that’ll be a pretty big black mark on Seattle’s record of being carbon neutral.

  14. Coming from an area of the country where there were no such things as trolley buses, these things simply amaze me. Of course, it could also be the traffic engineer in me as well. :)

    I agree with some of the posters that this survey is meant to give SDOT some fire power in negotiations with Metro. There are many externalities (sp?) that were not captured in the audit such as quality of life issues (noise, diesel emissions), global climate change considerations, and fleet replacement costs.

    One of the concerns I have had with the network is the fact that so many routes share the same wire. So when there is a problem along the route, a number of routes are suddenly sidetracked, canceled, or rerouted. Take for example the case of the structure fire on the corner of Bellevue Ave and Pine St last year. Due to the large response by SFD, Bellevue Ave was closed from Olive to Pine and Pine was blocked as well. That corner sees routes 10/12, 14, 43, and 49. The only other routing option was to have buses turn down Broadway to Madison and then back track to Pike St. Yikes! In addition to converting routes to trolley wire, we also should look at permanent fixes to these pinch points to provide reliability. Maybe, within those fixes, there will be some minor reroutes to expand service areas.

    Finally, I remember hearing that there was an effort in the 1980’s to convert both the route 11 and 27 to ETB but there was a neighborhood outcry. Why not propose that if a route is electrified (doesn’t that just sound cool), City Light will place the route on a list of locations for future undergrounding of utilities. Just a thought.

    1. If the ETBs have some off-wire capability, the shared route segments and pinch points shouldn’t matter. The trolleys could be rerouted just like diesel buses, albeit with some messing with the trolley poles, I presume.

      1. The driver wouldn’t need to leave the coach to mess with the poles. We had such a system for the tunnel buses. Pans would catch the poles and rewire them with the push of a button or switch when the driver correctly positions the bus under them.

        Rome’s articulated trolleybuses have the capability to travel off-wire up to 10 km (6 miles). In fact, they routinely travel for 2 miles off the wire using a battery through the city center.

        A new ETB system in Sweden doesn’t have wires at its bus yard. Instead, buses travel 1 km from the yard on battery power to reach the main line wire.

        Source: http://citytransport.info/Electbus.htm

      2. At a 6 mile range you could pull down all the shared wire and leave up only the straight wire. Or maybe even have just a small segment of wire at a terminal. Scatter some recharge points across the city near comfort stations and we’d be set. Heck, maybe even some of the Eastside routes could be electrified.

        This stuff is only going to get easier as battery technology improves.

        Interesting… Very interesting…

      3. More practically, at a 6 mile off-wire range you could eliminate all the wire junctions (which are expensive to construct and maintain) while retaining all the “line haul” wire (which isn’t, relatively speaking).

        Seattle deserves some fresh new trolleybuses.

      4. With the need for charging times and disconnecting an reconnecting poles, you have practical issues with too much reliance on off-wire capability.

  15. I’d really like to see any McGinn proposal to include both rail to West Seattle/Fremont/Ballard and more bus service. I think building the full Rapid Trolley [Bus] Network would be great. Low-floor ETBs and offboard payment!

  16. Does anybody know how much Vancouver spent on their recent New Flyer articulated trolleybus purchase? I have a hard time believing Metro’s claim that new trolleybuses cost more than hybrid buses. Sound Transit’s recent purchase of articulated hybrids puts their cost at close to a million dollars each. A trolleybus is inherently less complicated than a hybrid, and should therefore cost less.

  17. It sounds like the King County report forgot to include the cost of harmful diesel effects to humans. This number would see how ETBs are better for us and reduce our reliance on diesel oil.

  18. a new ETB fleet would probably have attributes that the Vancouver fleet has:
    low floor, wider aisles, off-wire capability, and regenerative braking. they would be new. the audit compared the operating cost of old ETB on one set of routes against the operating costs of new hybrids on a different set of routes: garbage in, garbage out. off-wire capability would allow ETB to go around obstacles such as SFD emergencies or construction projects. Metro recieves FTA grants of about $10m annually for part of the overhead maintenance. The ETB are heavily leveraged by federal grants. improved frequency should be the service design mantra.

    1. Off wire capability is huge. Not only can you get around obstacles but you can have stretches which don’t require overhead wire at all. Energy efficiency like regenerative braking extends that capability. Plus, the more electricity we save the better it is for the salmon, and salmon are tastey :=

  19. While we’re on the subject of trolley buses, I’d like to see artic trolleys on the 36 and 70 routes. The former should have artic trolleys because then it would become a full-time trolley route (no half-diesel-half-trolley anymore!) and the latter because I have often seen New Flyer D60HF’s running the 70 when the route is dieselized.

    Also, in SDOT’s study of modern trolleys having off-wire capabilities, they forgot that the Bredas’ original diesel engines counted as off-wire. Am I right?

    1. The 36 is half-diesel because the 36-only runs are out of Central base. I’m not sure if they are doing that for flexibility/scheduling reasons or if they simply don’t have enough trolleys.

      1. Actually not all 36 only runs are out of Central Base. Several run out of Atlantic (I’ve driven them). The 2 times I’ve driven the work, they’ve been near to dead empty, and often on the heels of other 36 runs towards the end of the early evening (5-7pm).

    2. I concur that we need some additional (preferably non-Breda) articulated trolleys. Remember, though, that the 36 interlines with the 1. The articulated ones would have to double back at Stewart/Olive. Not a problem since the 7 already turns here but I just thought I’d mention it.

  20. Let’s do a practical test. Take two buses, one trolley, and the other hybrid. Fill each one with a standing crush load of auditors and accountants. Run vehicles and financial passengers up and down the Queen Anne Counterbalance and James Street between Third Avenue and Harborview for a month of operating days.

    Compare condition of vehicles, and passengers. Should settle the question.

    Nobody’s suggesting using streetcars where service demands light rail (though in Sweden term light rail doesn’t exist, even for trains that look just like LINK.) Or replacing any kind of electric rail with trolleybuses.

    Like I’ve said, a lot of us original Tunnel-drivers would love to wire I-90 and drive it at sixty, but don’t see serious danger of that happening.

    When it comes time to put grooved rail and catenary down Rainier Avenue and also between Ballard and the U-District, I won’t fight for the ETB’s on those routes anymore, especially if we’re still using the Bredas.

    If you really want to put back the Counterbalance mechanism, we can take the ETB’s off the Routes 2 and 13 as well. Putting the 27 back to cable car will be good too- except there’s a minimum weight requirement for grip-men.

    Meantime- trolley equipment we’ve got needs upgrade, not removal. Can’t believe somebody can’t invent special work that can handle street speed. Anybody mechanically inclined and electrically knowledgable got any ideas?

    And of course off-wire capacity is a no-brainer.

    Mark Dublin.

  21. Speaking of random trolley thoughts, last summer I saw some odd things.

    1. A Breda frankentrolley running down second avenue by Benaroya Hall. I thought it was odd seeing it move and brake for short stretches without any wire aid, until I noticed a Metro bumper truck not too far behind. The destination sign also seemed to be reset, displaying “LUMINATOR HORIZON,” followed by a pixel by pixel resolution spec of the screen.

    2. While fixing a wire issue on third avenue, before the buses would reach the problem point, a KCMetro worker on-foot would trail behind the trolley, yank the poles down while the trolley accelerated past the problem area. Once the trolley was in appropriate distance, the worker would then reattach the poles and wait for the next trolley bus to come by to repeat the process.

    1. #2: This is called jumping. When we reach a section of the wire being repaired, the wire crew will get us into position, bang on the back of the coach, we then floor it. When we get to an appropriate speed, they pull the poles and we coast around the obstruction. Once around the obstruction, they bang on the coach again to get us to stop – they reattach the poles, and let us know to proceed.

  22. I just saw the hydrogen fuel cell electric buses operating in Whistler last week. They are very quiet, have a 500 km range, an 8-10 minute refueling time, and zero tailpipe emissions! Based on information provided by Air Liquide, the hydrogen supplier for the project, in one year the 20 fuel cell buses will save over 1,800 tonnes of greenhouse gases. Wow, much better than those unsightly overhead trolley wires.

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