[UPDATE 8:20pm: Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times comments below that Metro is looking into bringing a Vancouver trolleybus into town to see how low-floors perform on our hilly streets:]

Among various facts left on our virtual cutting-room floor… Metro staffers mention they will likely bring a Vancouver trolleybus down here to see how it maneuvers on Seattle streets. One task would be to measure how well a low-floor trolleybus can clear certain hill intersections without bottoming out.

[UPDATE: Human Transit has a thoughtful reflection on trolleybuses.]

Ever since a Metro audit recommended elimination of trolleybuses to save money, people have been worried that this beloved institution may disappear.  As it turns out, that day may come soon:

Now the day of reckoning has arrived.  By 2014, the agency expects its fleet of 159 trolleybuses to wear out… County elected officials must decide by next year whether to retire the old trolleybuses, buy new-generation models or switch to some other technology.

I like to think I approach the trolleybus issue with an open mind.  After a couple of rounds of discussion in September, I came up with this.  While I’m officially agnostic on what would cost more (smart doubts about the audit here), quite aside from aesthetic and sentimental issues I think having some electric transit is a useful hedge against the possibility of much higher fuel prices.

One very unfortunate side-effect of the audit finding is that this issue now acquires a Seattle/suburb valence and therefore gets sucked into the endless and pointless fight over who “subsidizes” whom.  That bodes ill given the math on the County Council.

125 Replies to “Trolleybuses Under Threat?”

  1. Given the current budget crises in local government — City and County as well as Transit — we should be VERY fearful of short-sighted actions, especially those done quickly and silently. Can you say “George Benson Waterfront Streetcar”?

    Looks like Mr. Skehan has done or is doing his homework on the topic. Any late reports, Mike, on that “audit” from last year?

    1. Not at this time, except to say the 2014 number is bogus.
      1. The gillig trolleys are nearly new, and should last another 10-15 years. The only thing old in them are the motors, and they were all ‘rewound’ before they were put in. Anyone who knows electric motors knows a rewound motor, with new bearings and brushes are effectively new. The motor controls were old, but refurbished, and replacement controllers (new) can be had for hundreds of thousand dollars less than an entirely new bus. That buys lots of time to make decisions.
      2. Metro only converted about 1/6th of the original Breda fleet to trolleys. Where did the other 300 Bredas end up? I hope not at a scrap yard somewhere.
      That buys more time if more conversions can be made. I hated the Breda or (Frankenbredas as some of the controllers called them), and would love to see a gradual replacement with Vancouver type trolleys with off-wire capability, unless Metro has drained the bus replacement fund dry by now.
      In short, there’s lots of options out there other than throwing in the towel!

      1. I think they got rid of some of the Bredas they didn’t convert, and AFAIK they’re parting out the rest to maintain the ones they have left. I think the second part of that was mentioned in the Times article.

      2. Metro had a total of 236 Bredas, of which 59 were converted to trolleys, 43 kept for parts, 1 retained in the historic fleet, and the remaining 133 were scrapped. I’ve seen pictures of the Bredas retained for parts and they are generally not in running condition as they’ve been out of service for 5 years now, so converting some of the parts buses probably isn’t feasible. You’d also reduce the supply of spare parts which would make maintenance of the fleet more problematic.

      3. The full disposition is here: http://www.busdude.com/HTML/KCM_breda_adpb350_dispolst.htm

        Of the 43 kept for parts, some were used as “warehouse” coaches, with seats removed but otherwise intact. probally for future conversion if the time ever came. although the supply of bredas has been dwindling at SB i have noticed.

        The gilligs should last another ten plus years as-is. Metro missed a golden oppertunity to purchase the controllers and motors from Philadelphia when they retired their E800 fleet some time ago before buying E40LFRs like vancouver. I’m sure Newflyer and Kiepie would be more than happy to sell seattle a fleet of E40 and E60LFRs to expand the trolley network.

      4. The gillig trolleys are nearly new, and should last another 10-15 years.

        I made a similar observation in my End of Days for Trolleybuses – Again? article. Neither the audit nor discussion that I’m hearing about upgrading the trolleybus fleet appears to be considerin the option of upgrading SOME of the fleet (i.e. junking the Bredas only). I’ve seen no seperate breakdown of maintenance costs betweeen the Bredas vs. the Gilligs. I’m guessing that it’s at least possible that there’s a pretty substantial difference between the two, and that this “cannibalization for parts” and wearing out of gears is happening at an exponentially different rate with the Bredas vs. Gilligs.

        Would love to see someone float a plan that looks at keeping the trolleys without this “all or nothing” approach, claiming that we need to replace the entire fleet at a cost of umpteen million dollars, rather than looking at lower cost solutions like getting ride of the oldest and worst of the bunch while keeping the bulk of the Gilligs in particular in service.

      5. My first trolley was an AM General purchased in 1979, and retired in 2003, a nice 24 year lifespan. The Gillig Trolleys are now 7 years old, so by that math, ‘could’ be replaced as late as 2027. It seems that Metro’s throwing babies out with bathwater with this 2014 ‘replace em all’ nonsense.
        Bredas? No tears shed there! They were crap when we got em. Then went downhill.
        Thanks for the posting on the auditor file. They spent several pages regurgitating there conclusion about how Metro could be saving 8 mil. a year, but nothin showing how they arrived at that number. I SMELL A RAT.

  2. As a resident of Capitol Hill and a dear lover of its trolley buses and their endless livability benefits, what if Seattle paid whatever additional, short-term investment trolley buses require with the catch that Seattle gets to receive all the savings on long term costs. With fuel prices surely to increase over the next decade, this could turn into a great return on investment for Seattle.

    1. I completely agree. I might make sense to do some sort of LID for the capital costs of new buses, with Metro continuing to cover the operating costs.

  3. Didn’t the audit specifically say that it was using current gas prices, subject to inflation?

    1. After always hearing how the “inflation” number are adjusted downward by removing changes in oil prices from the CPI, wouldn’t such an inflation hedge for petrol prices be an underestimate?

      1. Though I believe there are federal subsidies to help offset the purchase cost of ETBs. Also the longer life of ETBs compared to diesels is another factor to consider. Perhaps additional grants could be arranged with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

    1. This was a significant issue with the audit. They claim electric trolleys are double the price of a hybrid, yet they don’t give any credit for upgraded trolleys.

      The truth is that trolleys that have all of the benefits of a hybrid (ability to run off wires for a short distance, kneeling, low floor, etc.) should cost about the same amount as a hybrid – less even, since they don’t require an engine or a large amount of battery capacity.

      1. I don’t know the cost difference between hybrid and trolleys but from my understanding it isn’t so much the technological costs that are different, it is the fact that trolleys just aren’t ordered in as large of quantity. This makes them a “special order”. The bus company can’t just keep turning out the same exact bus that they where for the last 5 cities.

      2. That’s a great argument if we were talking about 2 or even 20 buses. But they’d be buying close to 200. Plus ETB’s with low floors aren’t new – they’ve been done in other cities (as close as Vancouver) recently, so there wouldn’t be extra design costs.

        I can imagine a 10% premium on the first 50 buses. A 100% premium on all 200? It doesn’t pass the sniff test.

      3. I tend to agree with you but I think you are underestimating the importance of mass production. Hybrid power trains are fairly standard now. Even in Europe electric drivetrains aren’t very common unless we are talking about putting a train motor in these buses.

        I would be very interested to see some facts on this, hopefully showing that ETB won’t be at such a high cost premium.

      4. Doing some digging (sorry, didn’t save the link) I read that San Franciso’s new hybrids are electric drive (sort of like a locomotive). That seems like a much more forward thinking approach (and SF has already paid the NRE charges ;-). Granted buses are a different engineering problem than a freight train but diesel engines really are most efficient and least poluting when they can run under constant load. That’s only really achievable with an electric drive. And of course (like trains) if the infrastructure is in place to hook up to an overhead wire it gets even better.

        Seattle was an early adopter of hybrid technology (and the first ones pretty much sucked). In contrast the City has a long history of ETB use. Diesel and diesel hybrid technology seems to be about where Detroit was with “emissions control” back in the ’70s. Metro has been complaining that new diesels get worse milage than buses from ten years ago because of the new emissions mandates. The manufacturers solution seems to be add more power robbing systems to clean the exhaust and “detune” the engine instead of making the engine more efficient. Mercedes and VW can build diesel cars that meet California clean air standards yet have more power and better milage than models from the turn of the century. What’s wrong with bus manufacturers?

    2. The New Flyers that TransLink uses are indeed quite nice. Their open floor plan accommodates a lot of standing passengers and their off-wire capability is quite helpful. Though this is purely anecdotal, my bus in Vancouver (#17) does tend to detach from its wire more often than I would expect…about once a week. Not sure if my drivers are just speeding through a wire interchange or if they have a tendency to detach…?

      1. I couldn’t find anything on the New Flyer site about the off wire capability. How far or how long can they be off wire and how long does it take to recharge?

      2. the old E901s and 902s could go for about 2 kms off wire IIRC, however the batteries do not power the air compressor so you were limited by how much air you had. I’m curious how Philadelphia with their small generator perform.

      3. The air being for brakes right? Hopefully they are equiped with regenerative braking so that should extend the range quite a bit. 2 km would offer a lot of flexibility. Any idea on the time to recharge? If it’s capacitor based. There could be more off wire than on wire miles. Also I’d hope the detach/attach procedure wouldn’t require the driver to leave the bus. “Switches” would be a thing of the past; simply cruise past the end of one wire and then reattach on the next.

  4. Among various facts left on our virtual cutting-room floor… Metro staffers mention they will likely bring a Vancouver trolleybus down here to see how it maneuvers on Seattle streets. One task would be to measure how well a low-floor trolleybus can clear certain hill intersections without bottoming out.
    — Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times

    1. Considering that low-floors (diesel and hybrid) are being used on some trips whenever the routes are dieselized, I would assume that bottoming out isn’t an issue.

      1. If low floor buses can go up James, Marion, or Queen Anne it would only be with the greatest of operator care. The transitions at the downhill side of intersections are too sudden and the coaches will frequently scrape or even hang up in the middle.

        That’s certainly a problem if the only trolleys available are low-floor, but it’s one shared by diesels too.

        What amazes me is that Metro could even be considering de-wiring the central part of Seattle. Yes, trolleys are slow in the crowded central city, but they’re LESS slow than diesels, because they can accelerate and slow much more rapidly than the diesels. Just ride one up Queen Anne sometime. It’s amazing how quickly they pull away from a stop on that 18 degree slope.

        But they are a major amenity for close in neighborhoods which have to put up with smog and noise from suburban commuters. What an injustice to inflict noisy belching diesel buses on them as well.

        If Metro continues with this stupid plan the city should insist that the bus system return to separate Seattle and Metropolitan transit ownership. The only thing lost would be city to country transfers, and it is inevitable that Seattle Transit would be a part of Orca.

        The complacent car worshippers in the suburbs have no idea how important the central city is the economic health of their beloved culs-de-sac. They certainly don’t treat the Cityzens with due respect.

    2. They’d better make sure they run one up Marion at 3rd Avenue. There isn’t a bus made that won’t bottom out there at anything over about 3mph – a special challenge as some engineering genius put a dead spot right there so that you have to accellerate uphill to gain enough – just enough – momentum to get through it without bouncing your coache’s front bumper on the pavement.

      1. Yes, about that deadspot. Why is it there? The northbound 3rd Ave coach should definatly have the dead spot. Oh, wait. Is the dead spot from the NB 3rd wire, or the wire trailing in from the SB 3rd to EB Marion wire?

        If a 3600 can do it, than a low-floor trolley can too. A Trans-Link trolley coach is the same as a 3600 as the basics are concerned. The restyled design and poles on top don’t change the frame or wheel base.

      2. Not sure whether the dead spot is E-W or N-S. Whichever – it should be switched. I hate that sucker. That and the one in the middle of the turn from NB 6th by the Madisson Rennaisance turning right to Madisson. Right in the middle of the freakin’ turn going up hill with cars parked along the overpass. Would love to personally choke the sparky that figured that one out.

        They do occasionally run diesels on the #12, and frankly were it not for that dead spot, the bottoming wouldn’t be as much an issue as we could just accellerate through that dip at low speed rather than trying to build inertia to coast through it.

      3. How many locations this this an issue? If there are something like 10 or less it seams it would be more effective to fix those locations rather than limiting which buses can be used.

  5. If I remember correctly the audit was comparing the costs of running and maintaining ETBs that were near the end of their life vs brand new hybrids. It also didn’t make any cost per mile allowance for the much more heavy duty use the ETB routes typically involve.

    Key to improving the ETB fleet is providing off wire capability. It should be at least long enough to make it through the tunnel. Secondarily it would be fantastic if they could at least standardize the voltage to at least match the streetcar network. Interchangeable components would reduce maintenance costs.

    1. Standardized voltage would be nice, but I think “interchangeable components” is quite simply never going to happen. The busses need two poles (active and ground), while the trains need one (the rails function as a ground).

      1. There’s still a lot of components that could be interchangeable both in the buses and related to the grid if they could standardize.

      2. They are actually. If memory serves the Trolleycoach network is a nominal 700 VDC, same as the south lake union streetcar (according to an old ‘blog post i found).

        The Waterfront Streetcar Line is a nominal 600 vdc, and LINK is 1500 vdc. Although the Streetcar and trolleycoaches are fed from diffrent substations, so its not a true intergrated network. And with the way most transit projects seem to go these days i doubt any future lines would feed from trolleycoach substations as well.

    2. That also depends on rolling stock and bus vendors. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of any manufacturer that supplies trolleybuses and trams with compatible electrification systems.

      1. No one company supplies all the componets to an entire system. its about how you design it. you buy your rolling stock (trolleycoach or rail) to run off the same voltage. You deisgn your substations accordigly. the electrical componets for the substations could be Siemens, GE, IMPulse NC, or any number of common electrical equipment vendors. for overhead you have Ohio Brass, Westinghouse for a time, i think Kiepie is in the business, and K&M, Elektroline amongst others. So long as you get the appropriate voltage to the vehicle, and it has a positive and negitive it dosent care who built the rest of the system, and infact most systems new and old are quite a mix of componets from diffrent suppliers over the years.

      2. San Francisco streetcars and trolleybuses share the overhead hot wire on Market Street. Streetcar line stations ‘curbside’ on Broadway could be shared with trolleybuses. Waiting for the streetcar in the middle of Broadway. Whee! Once the streetcar wire is strung, aesthetics complaint about trolleybus wire from clueless motorists will surge.

        The big advantage trolleybuses have over diesel/hybrid buses is hill-climbing ability. Seattle would be wise to dedicate hilly routes to trolleybus. A low-floor model may bottom-out on steep hill intersections, but the problem can be fixed with chassis and suspension adjustment. Busy pedestrian corridors, especially downtown, are ideal for quiet zero-emission trolleybus.

        The only person who’ll assure retention of trolleybuses is Mike McGinn.

        Too many others don’t know what they’re talking about or don’t care.

    3. Bernie,

      the costs of running and maintaining ETBs that were near the end of their life vs brand new hybrids

      As I read the audit. “near the end of their life” was based on pretty arbitrary standars, i.e. a number someone pulled out of thin air. Guaging whether a trolleybus is at the “end of it’s life” doesn’t appear to take into account the actual condition of the coach as maintained or evne the number of miles it’s been driven – merely its age.

      This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

      1. I think part of the reason that it’s unfair to compare new hybrids to old trolleys is that maintenance costs on an older vechile, no matter how well maintained will be higher just because things break over time and parts start to become harder to get which typically means more expensive. In some cases you may have to rebuild parts which is almost always more expensive than being able to exchange for a rebuilt or new part. And while a well maintained older ETB may be very reliable that will not be nearly as true with a diesel (more moving parts, gaskets, rotting fuel lines) or a hybrid which has all of the maintenance issues of a diesel and the electrical system.

        The other part of the equation is that while the physics of electricity haven’t changed one would expect new technology like electronic motor controls, power factor correction, regenerative braking (not really a new idea but don’t think it was built into the existing ETBs) will make the new buses cheaper to run than the old ones.

    1. I liked the HT article – but like many such articles it seemed to adopt the meme unquestionably that “Seattle’s trolleybus fleet is expected to need replacement by 2014”. Not a lot of questions asked like “WHY will it need repacement?” “The entire fleet – or just vehicles that are worn out to the point where it costs more to maintain than replace them?” “What about Bredas vs. Gilligs?” “What would the consequence be to keeping all, some, or much of the fleet in service beyond 2014?”

      Those are the questions that I have, and having gone through the audit section, I’m still unconvinced that any concrete factor other than age of the trolleys (even though there is a substantial range of ages of both the Breda and Gilligs) is being used to make the recommendation for replacement.

      Is Metro really entitled to make a claim that the fleet needs replacement by 2014 just because – well, because it’s 2014? Sounds more like a mid-life crisis than a valid approach to transportation planning in a fiscally responsible environment.

      1. Years ago i heard it was more the overhead and back end than the vehicles. But im sure the bredas are getting towards the end of their useable service life.

  6. Are there any numbers for how many people think trolley wires are an “eyesore” vs those who see it as a pleasant reminder of the streetcar era? (Not to mention the quieter, smoother rides.) I was stunned when I read that some people want to rip the wires out as unaesthetic.

    1. This is up there with people in Cape Cod not wanting a wind farm because it would “ruin” their views. It is elitism to deny people better-quality clean electric transit just because there are some wires in the air. Should we rip out all our telephone poles and bury the wires because they are an eyesore? No, that would be incredibly expensive and ridiculous. If people want pure vistas with no wires, they really shouldn’t be living in a city. This is NIMBYism and should be aggressively ignored.

      1. ‘Aggressively Ignored’ has been added to my ‘phrases to use whenever possible’ list. LOL

    2. Imagine what Seattle would look like if every last thing that was deemed “aesthetically unpleasing” by the upper class were removed from this city?

      It’s all a matter of perspective. If you want a good looking city, you can do it with wires around.

      1. I’d bet it is mostly a few short-sighted denizens of my neighborhood who are absolutely and unalterably opposed to re-electrifying the #11

      2. That was the first place I thought of as well. A pity, really, given how logical it would be to have the 11 on the wire.

      3. Was the main objection from those along Madison or from those on the short extension through the neighborhood? If that was the case, why not have the 11 turn around at Madison instead of continuing through the neighborhood?

      4. Yep. That’s where the car line turned. It’s only three and a half blocks to the north shore.

    3. I don’t remember anyone complaining when they wired route 70 about ten years ago. I think that most people understood the benefits of the electric buses, and Metro designed the overhead in a very tasteful way which actually improved the streetscape a bit.

  7. I’ve heard that Councilmember Rasmussen is very interested in saving the trolleybus network from this threat. I hope he starts a public process soon to start making the case and coming up with options to fund the new trolleybuses. Tearing out this infrastructure would be such a waste, and would echo the decision in the 30’s to tear out the streetcars.

  8. It sounds like there’s a lot of opposition from powerful politicians to eliminating the trolleybuses. I’ve sent a few emails out to elected officials but I’m not too incredibly worried at this point. I had a question on the open thread that people didn’t seem to understand, so I’ll ask it again. The First Hill Streetcar will run up Broadway and will need its own trolleywire, so what will happen to the existing trolleywire along Broadway? Will it be removed, or moved to be beside/above the streetcar trolleywire, or what?

    1. I’d imagine that if trolleybus service remains on Broadway that they will just move the trolleybus wire next to the streetcar wire like they did on Fairview where the #70 and the streetcar run together.

      I think the main problem with running them together is at the complex wire junctions like at Broadway & Madison and Broadway & James. Running streetcars and trolleybuses on the same street generally isn’t a problem, it’s where they cross that it becomes difficult.

  9. We have to think long term and big picture when talking about trolley buses, they may be cheaper simply for metro, in the short term, but they aren’t for the city as a whole.

    Dense cities are prone to pollution – noise and air. Trolley buses deal with both (bringing down medical bills at the end of the day)

    Gasoline today is bought in bulk, and subsidized. That large consumption and subsidy will go away soon, and we should be ready.

    Add the cost of funding Chaves and the Saudis, and the occasional massive Gulf coast oil spill.

    Then think about the time of the passengers. I don’t know about others here, but I can work much more productively on a quiet trolley bus than I can on a diesel.
    (let’s say the every rider of the 48 were able to save 5 minutes in work if it were electric. At a wage of $10 per hour, that’s 50 cents per passenger. Multiply that by 13,000 and you get a savings of $7,500 per day)

    Are trolley buses really that expensive?

    1. Fuel costs are easily asorbed into the budget as business expenses. Having a seperate department to maintain trolleycoach electrical systems is a wholey seperate line item which makes it a vulnerable target. Metro buys fuel in bulk at fairly substancial discount over the price at the pump. As our supply of oil starts to dwindle (see the fiasco in the gulf of mexico) the savings will soon be easily made in the trolleycoach vs motorcoach debate. Of course, since its a seperate line item…

  10. As a bicycle rider, I can say that I much prefer to ride behind/around the trolley buses vs a disgusting, belching diesel bus. Given the city’s growing number of cyclists and the integral role of the bicycle in any sustainable city concept, the health and comfort of cyclists (and runners, pedestrians, car drivers…) should be a core consideration in the argument to keep the trolley buses.

    Also, the hilly nature of Seattle makes cycling behind a diesel bus even worse. An incline will make the bus spew the most exhaust, just at the time I am breathing heaviest. Huffing diesel fumes every day is not the best advertisement for switching to the wonderful world of the bicycle.

    It would likely be impossible to measure the effect trolley buses have on the number of cyclists, but the city saves money every time a cyclist no longer takes up valuable city center space with a car (add additional health savings, etc, etc.)

    Some cities have gone to great lengths to address the exhaust problem. Buses in Barcelona advertise how much cleaner the city air is because they use some natural gas buses. Now that’s an expensive (and only partially-successful) solution!

    1. I agree. Even the hybrids don’t really change anything in regards to the exhaust coming into my face while I’m bicycling.

      1. My understanding is that outside of the tunnel the hybrids are simply diesel buses hauling around a lot of extra weight in the form of the electric drive train. When the tunnel was closed they disabled the “hybrid” feature. Yes I’ve read that they have regenerative braking but if you’re not using the electric motor outside the tunnel what good is it? The batteries are probably recharged after the first couple of stops under diesel power.

      2. Not really, if that was the case then cities without a DSTT wouldn’t be buying New Flyer hybrid coaches.

        As far as I know the “hush” mode is what is unique to Seattle and is only used in the tunnel. I believe it was “hush” mode that was disabled when the DSTT was closed.

        I believe the buses operate a lot like the Honda hybrids where the electric motor provides a power boost when accelerating.

        Other brands of hybrid coaches have other modes of hybrid operation. I know there is at least one series hybrid on the market for example.

      3. They’re still a hybrid outside of the tunnel. The “hush” mode is what they use in the tunnel, which lets them run on pure electric up to a certain speed.

      4. “Hush” mode is not pure electric. it always includes at least 20% diesel power, which is why the tunnel gets scary when Link or a bus breaks down and buses get stuck in the tubes.

      5. Not true. Yes, the coach is on battery mode, or “HUSH Mode” in the tunnel, but when outside the bus still uses the batteries just as a hybrid car. The electric power stored in the batteries is used everytime the bus accelerates and the power is gradually switched over to diesel as the bus gains speed.

  11. A thought today while standing and waiting for a bus in Fremont — a belching diesel bus was at the stop. Gag, gag, gag. It pulled away, belching more noxious fumes. IT STANK.
    Later, downtown. ETB at the stop, no noise, no fumes.
    Along with the reverse rocket scientists who won’t consider fixed guide-way transit on the 520 corridor, who killed the waterfront streetcar for some art project, who can’t think beyond the 1.3 people in an SUV the “auditors” who used figures to lie (and whose lie figures) should be banned for all time. Any attempt to kill the trolley buses should be met with derision.

    1. Hydrogen is not even close to zero-emissions. And it is made from non-renewable, unsustainable natural gas.

      1. Hydrogen can be made from electrolysis. Those who demand 100% efficiency will still be disappointed, as this requires storage of energy with a resultant loss in efficiency. Can’t help those folks – I’m fine with storing energy, particularly when it doesn’t require carbon-producing combustion to release it.

      2. http://www.suncatalytix.com/

        “Located in Cambridge, MA, Sun Catalytix is an early-stage renewable energy startup founded on groundbreaking science from the research lab of Professor Daniel Nocera at MIT. With Nature as our inspiration, we seek to combine sunlight and water to provide affordable, highly distributed solar energy to the individual.

        The elemental components of just 3 gallons of water have enough energy, when recombined, to satisfy the daily energy needs of a large American home. The US receives 500-fold more energy each year than it uses, but unfortunately the sun shines only half the time.

        At Sun Catalytix we are working to realize the dream of cheap, renewable, personalized energy allowing individuals to use the power around-the-clock. Backed by Polaris Venture Partners, we have started down the path to a sustainable energy future.”

      3. More on that:

        MIT researchers harness the sun’s power

        “For decades, scientists have been trying to replicate the process of photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy. The Economist reports that Angela Belcher and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made headway, replicating the first phase of the photosynthesis process.

        According to the article, photosynthesis is a two-step reaction process. In the first step, sunlight splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.”

        Read more: http://www.kansascity.com/2010/05/10/1935403/mit-researchers-harness-the-suns.html#ixzz0nbEEuT7h

      4. They’re still separating the hydrogen from natural gas. Natural gas is still a finite resource that has to be drilled for, and in Hawaii’s case, shipped there in tankers.

      5. Three gallons times 3.2 million people in Pugetopolis equals a lot of water. If this takes off, there could be the same problem of biofuel raising up the price of corn.

      6. Easy Mike, don’t get lured into [John]’s crazyness.

        1) 3.2 million gallons of water isn’t a lot of water.

        2) The amount of water is meaningless. You need a large amount of energy to break the hydrogen-oxygen bonds. Yes, you can get some of that energy back and that’s how hydrogen is used as a fuel. But that fuel necessarily comes from another source of energy. If you started off with water, then you needed electric energy. More likely you started off with natural gas, since this is currently cheaper than electricity. But in that case it would be much cheaper to just use the natural gas as a fuel and skip the middle man.

      7. What about using hydroelectric power to create hydrogen from electrolysis? There must be some sort of karmic appeal to having the energy start as water, be stored as a molecular component of water, and have the only “waste product” be water.

      8. Better yet, use methane from waste water treatment. Sewerage in, hydrogen and biosolids fertilizer gets pooped out. There’s something to sit and stink about :=

      9. [Jeff] You lose a whole lot of energy in converting that energy to chemical energy (hydrogen) then back to electric energy (fuel cells), rather than just leaving it as electricity. Besides, if you think an ETB is expensive, just wait until you see the price tag on a platinum fuel cell powered bus.

      10. Matt,

        You “lose a whole lot of energy” converting tofu dogs into a walk around Greenlake. So what?

        “Leaving it as electricity” also involves a loss of energy – in the need to convert and maintain the means of transmitting that electricity from source to load.

        Hydrogen is good stuff. Powers the sun itself, even.

      11. If the water comes out as drinking water, great. But apparently the process breaks up the water molecules and takes the hydrogen, meaning water is destroyed. So if this is done at a large scale, it could compete for water resources with drinking water and lawn-watering water. That’s the similarity to biofuels. People seem to be willing to pay a greater price for energy than for other uses, which can leave those other uses shortchanged.

    2. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are very new and very expensive.

      Hydrogen is merely a method of storing energy, at the moment this is most commonly natural gas.

      Given that reality you are better off just getting CNG buses.

      Even if you were to make hydrogen from electricity and water, you are still likely better off with even a battery powered vehicle in terms of efficiency.

      An electric trolley bus is of course much better since it doesn’t have to carry the fuel onboard.

      1. Besides the fact as i understand it they could only spend 4 or 8 hours out on the road, and many of the them spent more time in the shop than on the road.

      2. 1. Fuel cells have been in use since the 1960s Apollo program.

        2. Hydrogen is (NOT) a storage medium

        I counter memed that a long time ago in my blog, but the astroturfers won’t quit.


        “Call me paranoid, but there are certain topics that, when I post an opinion on the Internet, it invites what almost seems like an instant canned response.

        Again, the paranoid in me envisions these boiler rooms of AstroTurfers data mining for keywords and ready to offer a canned response. Case in point, I often post pro Hydrogen and pro fuel cell items in many comments and blogs. I swear that within 5 minutes of posting, some person will then write that “hydrogen is not a fuel. It is a storage medium”.

        I just recently thought, am I reading things? Or do I keep hearing this phrase over and over again. What does Google think?

        63,900 for “hydrogen is a storage medium”

        317,000 for “hydrogen is not a fuel”

        I’m not sure who pays these guys, but they really should change their talking points (memes).”

      3. No, it most definitely is a storage medium (or a refined version of a
        hydrocarbon) You can produce it from natural gas or (very inefficiently)
        through processes such as hydrolysis. Exactly where are you getting this hydrogen otherwise?


      4. It’s not a hydrocarbon in any form… There’s no carbon in it. Hydrogen is a fuel (like Presto Logs are a fuel) and although it’s found in nature the only way to get a useable amount is to create it and then pressurized or liquified it which requires more energy than you get back out. It’s not a fuel source which we can mine, drill, or harvest. So it’s only a way to store and concentrate energy available from other sources (nuclear, hydrocarbons, solar, etc.).

      5. Thanks Bernie. That’s what I was meaning. “Refined from” was the wrong term, what I meant was that today in general when purchased commercially it is chemically extracted from hydrocarbons. None of the carbon is left in the final form though.

    1. Cool. I predict a resurgence of the Gyrobus within a decade or two. I love that the massive gyro keeps the bus smooth and stable. But these would make more sense in a flat city – changing tilt would tend to eat away at the available power.

  12. I remember not so long ago there was some talk about a global warming issue, I’m pretty sure I remember something about that.

    How could anyone seriously suggest replacing a fully electric transit alternative in that context?

    I also remember when I first arrived in Seattle, and Metro was in the process of replacing all the wire that some idiots had torn down previously. I was amused daily to see old 200-series GMC and 500-series Flxible diesels – packed to the gills – straining to get up James St. Almost every day, the bus would fail to make it up the hill, and passengers would actually get out and help push the bus. Can you imagine anyone doing that today? No government agency would allow it!

    We need to buckle down and buy the new trolley fleet. Stick with 40′ coaches and run them more frequently – they’re all on routes that deserve it. Make them rapid. Stop messing around and do it! As a Seattle resident, this is something I would be willing to help support with my local tax dollars if needed.

  13. While this may surprise some transit fans, I believe the biggest threat to the trolley system currently is the newly approved First Hill Streetcar. By running the Streetcar up Jackson, home of three major trolley routes, and then across Broadway, we are threatening the future existence of those trolley routes. While crossing routes, like the 2 or 3-4 may be doable, it will be an engineering feat to co-locate trolley and streetcar overhead due to the weight of the required infrastructure, particularly at intersections. Imagine what couild happen if an errant trolley driver pulls down 2-3 tons of overhead wire and switches. In addition, the problem of differing voltage electrical systems will create a dangerous situation for passengers and drivers if, for example, a trolley pole is lost and contacts the streetcar wire. The concept I have heard is to run the streetcar down the middle of the street, with stops in the middle. How many passengers will get run over by passing traffic? How much liability will this entail?

    It would comfort me some to know this is being done somewhere else successfully. Does anyone know of an example anywhere in the world where this works?

    1. Some people have pointed out that down on Fairview there is a streetcar trolleywire in the center and the pair of trolleybus trolleywires to the right. That’s ridiculous to say that passengers will get hit by passing traffic because the stops are in the center of the street. There’s not any more possibility of this happening than it happening when people cross the street at regular crosswalks. Center running streetcars with stops in the middle of the street are used all over the world, and here in Seattle on Fairview.

    2. I have to agree with you there (which will surprise nobody whose seen my critiques of rail vs. bus/trolleybus as “neato”). Streetcars as a rail solution don’t carry anymore than trolleybusses, and are substatntially more expensive. In some respects, I still view the return to rail-bases public transport solutions around Seattle as more nostalgia than practical solution.

    3. You don’t have to look any farther than Seattle to see a place where it works. The overhead for route 70 crosses the South Lake Union Streetcar in 4 different places; at Fairview & Valley, at Fairview & Harrison, at Westlake & Virginia, and at Westlake & Stewart. They also run parallel on Fairview for half a mile or so, where there also happens to be a center platform streetcar stop where no one has ever lost their life to a passing car.

      If you want examples outside of Seattle you can look at the system in Zurich, Switzerland, where almost every inner-city transit route is either a streetcar or electric trolleybus. Many of the streetcar and bus routes there run on common streets and serve the same platforms. The overhead that they’ve built is much more complicated than anything in Seattle. Here’s an intersection in Zurich that’s near a stop for 2 streetcar and 4 bus routes;


    4. market street in SF is the best example of this. streetcars run down the center of the street in just about all the streetcar systems that survived.

    5. Jim,

      Trolleys cross and run alongside light rail lines in San Francisco ALL OVER THE PLACE! My favorite example of wire craziness is the two blocks between Duboce and Church and Market and Church. At Duboce and the N-Judah and J-Church car lines divide there with a full powered Wye for N cars moving between the outer end and the San Jose barn. Then there’s the ETB overhead for the 22-Fillmore which bulls through the whole mess on Church.

      You can walk a block south to Market and Church where there are two surface LRT lines crossing (the J-Church and the F-Market historic cars) PLUS ETB lines paralleling the LRV’s on both Market and Church.

      Because the ETB’s and LRV’s share voltage in San Francisco, the overhead doesn’t have the big offset gaps that it does along the SLUT.

      You wanna see some fireworks? Hang out there on a Saturday evening when the drivers are having fun.

  14. It should also be noted that another comment-poster in this blog and I are starting a “Save Seattle’s Trolley Buses” campaign, very similar to the “Bring Back the Waterfront Streetcar” campaign.

    Also, I am just getting my facts straight–the reason the trolleys are better hillclimbers are because of the extra torque generated by the traction motor driving the axle directly (rather than a diesel bus whose engine is connected to a transmission before reaching the axle), right?

      1. Bernie,

        Actually, no, there’s no transmission. The motor is geared to the axle to lower the RPM’s and increase the effective torque of the motor, but it’s permanently geared. There’s no clutch or variable gearing of any kind.

        That’s why they sound like they’re going to explode at 45 mph ;-). (They can’t….)

      2. Which is exactly what I said. You have one chance at the rear diff to adjust the gear ratio. Electric motors have a wide range but it’s not infinite. Correct me if I’m wrong but the trolley routes don’t need to run at more than 45 mph.

      3. Bernie,

        Sorry, you wrote “differential” and I read “transmission” for some reason.

        And, no, they don’t need to go faster than 45. They do go that fast on some San Francisco routes regularly, though.

      4. No problem. Reading more about the hybrids I may be wrong in saying that they “need” a rear differential. From what I’ve read there are two 100 HP electric motors KC metro hybrids. If each motor is coupled to a separate drive wheel then you wouldn’t actually need a differential if you didn’t have the diesel motor trying to drive a single axle. To me it seems like just another reason the trolley buses and an electric drive hybrid make way more sense than what KC Metro is investing in.

  15. What’s this about non-ETBs can’t go up steep hills? The 2E and 45 seem to be going up Queen Anne Avenue just fine, not to mention the thousands of cars a day that drive up it.

    1. Only laboriously. I’ve driven a 2300 up the counterbalance, and it’s pretty much walking speed. Must be a real joy for folks living along there.

      1. That’s my bus home, and every time we’re at standing-room loads it feels like we aren’t going to make it.

        Actually, that’s probably why the 2X doesn’t stop on the hill – only up at the top. Trying to start up again on that steep of a slope would be a nightmare.

      2. They did stop during the overhead replacement project. The ONLY buses on the 2 were 700’s.

      3. Remind you that diesels stop on the hills on the weekends. But also, I do the 2X on Thursdays. Most of the PM 2X’s are 2300’s, but I have one on a hybrid leaving 3/Pike at 6:03pm. I was a bit worried the first day of shakeup, but was very surprised, that it climbed better than a diesel Gillig. Probably because of the Allison Transmission, you can feel the shifts (because there aren’t any), so it’s very smooth and has the electrical assist from the batteries at a slower speed. It’s not a trolley, so it’s still slow, but if makes it up just fine.

        And I did stop on the hill with a hybrid. The damn pedestrian crosswalk halfway up the hill will kill your momentum sometimes, but thats okay.

  16. Trying to look at Metro’s 2008 report which has fuel used data I come up with the following for gallons per platform hour. The first percentage is figured by dividing the number of hybrids (including dual mode for ’04-05) by the total number of buses using diesel (I didn’t factor in transit vans or trolleys). The second percentage is tolley’s of all full size buses. Stinkers is conventional diesel as percentage of entire fleet of buses (100 minus %hybrid would give you % stinkers of all diesel burners).

    2004 2.8 gal/hr 20% hybrid 11% trolleys 71% stinkers
    2005 2.8 gal/hr 20% hybrid 11% trolleys 71% stinkers
    2006 3.0 gal/hr 19% hybrid 13% trolleys 71% stinkers
    2007 2.7 gal/hr 20% hybrid 14% trolleys 69% stinkers
    2008 2.7 gal/hr 21% hybrid 12% trolleys 70% stinkers

    Hard to really see any clear correlation largely because the composition of the fleet has been remarkably stable. About all you can say is that as the fleet is modernized fuel economy improves. Maybe a similar calculation for ST would be easier to isolate the effect of hybrids except most ST routes aren’t the driving conditions in which hybrids claim to have the biggest advantage.

    kwh/trolley (+ dual mode ’04 and ’05)
    2004 103,850
    2005 111,200
    2006 097,500
    2007 092,650
    2008 102,400 (20 less tolleys so each one likely running more hours)

    What I find interesting here is that the dual mode buses seemed to have been pigs when running on electricity. Without platform hours for the tolleys it’s hard to compare cost per hour for electricity vs diesel. If you just take a percentage of total platform hours and assume the tolleys portion is equal to it’s percentage of the fleet it works out pretty darn close to 10 hours per trolley per weekday. Trolleys ball park look to account for 100,000 kwh each per year. That works out to 38.46 kw/hr. At a relatively generous 10 cents per kwh (I’d bet Metro pays far less) that’s $3.85 cents per hour for “fuel” vs at least $8/hr for diesel (assume diesel at $3 per gallon without taxes).

    Now, trolleys do require maintenance of the overhead system and because they’re a small percentage of the fleet (and sort of a bastarized bunch) I can see where it’s a bit of a headache with respect to service. But overall hybrids don’t really seem to do that much whereas a purely electric bus is clearly much cheaper to operate from a “fuel” standpoint.

    1. Great analysis considering the available data, [Bernie]. The feeling that ETB’s should be much cheaper to run (as your analysis has given some numbers to) is the reason the results of the report made no sense to me, and why I looked into their numbers.

      The largest strikes against the ETB’s were more items that just don’t make sense – namely that a new ETB costs twice what a hybrid costs and that an “engine overhaul” of an ETB occurs 6.7x as often as an engine overhaul of a hybrid yet costs exactly the same. The report writers tell me that these figures, along with other questionable data, come from King County Metro.

      I say their study is a great example of garbage in, garbage out. It would be a shame to kill the trolley system based on bad data.

      1. Hybrids cost on the order of $200,000 more than a standard stinker but according to Metro’s Enviromental Purchasing Bulletin 102, “The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will provide approximately 80 percent of the funding” (it’s not clear if that’s 80% of the difference or 80% of the entire cost). Is part of the problem the feds skewing the market with subsidies? Gee, I wonder who would lobby congress to fund a solution that’s more poluting and less cost effective?

    2. Reading the King County Metro Transit Hybrid Articulated Buses: Final Evaluation Results it looks like the claim is ~3 mpg for conventional and ~4 mpg for diesel hybrids. Thing is, if you look at the 2008 year end report, take total platform miles (multiply by .9 to factor in the ETB) and then divide by gallons of fuel used you come up with a fleet average of 4.3 mph. No surprise that in the real world the hybrids don’t come close to the 30% promised fuel savings.

      More fun with numbers, 4.3 miles per gallon and 2.7 gallons per platform mile means the average speed of your Metro bus is just under 12 miles per hour (this is including layover time of course where the bus is going nowhere). So, if the bus is sitting a hybrid has no advantage. If the bus is on the freeway or moving at a steady speed the hybrid has no advantage. In the real world the hybrid “advantage” isn’t apparent in the budget numbers. I’m left with the conclusion that this report, based on dynonometer numbers, is such a far cry from real world conditions as to be essentially meaningless.

      1. oops, “you come up with a fleet average of 4.3 mph” should be “… mpg” (miles per gallon, not miles per hour). And “2.7 gallons per platform mile” should have read “… per platform hour”. Two demerits :-(

      2. Great job of mining the data, Bernie.
        The auditors office could use a few good men, or women.

      3. The auditors office could use a few good men, or women.

        You’re not kidding. Despite some salient points that any person on the street could have pointed out, that audit is a mess. It should be used to teach other auditors now NOT to publish a report, or for that matter to conduct an audit.

      4. Well said, Bernie, as usual.

        It is well to remember that dynamometers are favorite tools of the Indy 500 caucus. Consider the source when evaluating the output.

  17. Analyses of diesel vs. electric buses have been made continuously for 30 years, and they all come to the same conclusion – 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. There should just be a permanent consultant contract to keep running this analysis every year – perhaps they’d get good at it!

    Metro gets federal “guideway” funds for operating trolley service that it would lose if converted to diesel. It’s hard to imagine that federal incentives for electric transit wouldn’t increase over time, not decrease. On the other hand, they’ve taken their worst, most trouble-prone fleet in history and made them into franken-trolleys, and so it’s no surprise that the maintenance people have come to anti-trolley bias – fixing buses that were awful when they were bought and have become worse ever since from a rail manufacturer that had never made buses before. Artic trolleys are highly non-standard and take a heavy toll on substations. Metro should find a solid supplier of standard trolleys and make the purchase, and leave this self-destructive issue in the rear view mirror.

    1. And when they do purchase more, it ought to be about 300 new non-articulated vehicles to increase service/headways on existing routes, and perhaps hang a bit more wire, certainly on 12th Ave, and perhaps on 23rd to get the south end of the 48 under wires as well. At some point the UW area overhead ought to be extended north so coaches can turn back at Roosevelt Link Station.

  18. Trolley buses are QUIET. The trolley wires of the Metro 14 run outside my office window, very literally, because I’m on the second floor. With all our hydro, and all our hills, trolley buses make serious sense. Replacing them would never pencil out in terms of lifecycle cost.

    My distinctly biased view is the bean-counters that did this analysis must be a couple of headcounts we don’t need to pay for. Get busy, McGinn!

  19. When Metro runs diesel buses on the trolley routes during weekends on Capital Hill it is hell. The diesel buses are so loud especially on Bellevue Ave which is like a canyon with the apartment buildings lining each side of the street. The noise alone is reason enough to say no way to diesel buses replacing the trolleys!

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