After a Metro audit recommended doing away with the trolleybus system to save money, there’s been a lot of anxiety about its future and questions about the conclusion that the system is, in fact, more expensive. In response to these concerns, the King County Council commissioned a detailed study on the cost/benefit tradeoffs associated with trolleys. Last week Dow Constantine’s office transmitted a plan to conduct this study.

In this kind of thing assumptions and ground rules are all-important. After considering a wide array of technologies, Metro has narrowed down the comparison to diesel-electric hybrids vs. trolleys. Conventional diesels, battery electrics, compressed natural gas (CNG), and fuel cell systems were dismissed for various reasons.

The evaluation criteria fall into five categories: environmental impacts, likely to favor the trolleys; scheduling impacts, likely to favor the hybrids; cost advantage, which the audit gave to hybrids but is disputed by trolley proponents; and both the impact on both state/federal grants and existing legal agreements, which I can’t even begin to assess.

Importantly, the cost study will include a sensitivity analysis of energy costs, which will capture the benefits of relatively stable-cost electricity. The study is expected to begin this fall and release a draft report early next year. Some other thoughts about the trolley argument here.

32 Replies to “Metro Proposes Trolleybus Study Methodology”

  1. “Importantly, the cost study will include a sensitivity analysis of energy costs, which will capture the benefits of relatively stable-cost electricity.”

    Will that include multiplier effects from local recirculation of dollars spent on NW generated electric power vs. foriegn-sourced diesel fuel?
    or is there a local biodiesel option that’s price competitive?
    I suppose if we use Alaskan or Canadian oil some of that $ comes back here, eh? How ’bout we just stick with electric, in case anybody needs to breath.

    1. I would highly doubt it. It’s hard to quantify things like that in C-B analyses of this scale.

    2. The thing that is likely to skew things in favor of bio-diesel. which is neither green or economical (especially when you factor in higher food prices) is federal subsidies thanks to the agri-lobby to artificially incentivise the use of it. ADM, the new BP.

    1. Don’t be a troll. Most people I talk to at the county believe that the trolleys will stay. If you have proof of some trolley killing conspiracy, offer it.

      1. The biggest obstacle for the tolleys is capital cost. If wire maintenance combined with reduced energy cost turns out to be a wash at today’s pricing then they’re history. KC Metro is spending capital replacement funds to maintain operations. They’re going to be forced into the lowest cost alternative just to keep vehicles rolling. The other big advantage the diesel hybrids will have is fleet uniformity. That’s a pretty big deal when it comes to maintenance costs. Metro’s only going to be able to look at costs 5-10 years out at the most; not the 20 years it may take for the ETBs to really shine.

      2. Not if the trolleys are eligible for Federal fixed guideway grants. I was surprised when SDOT’s Peter Hahn mentioned they are during the city council transportation committee meeting.

      3. Well that would be another interesting distortion from federal subsidy. The long term loser from these candy teasers is once they expire the local agencies are left with the distorted choice to fund out of the local O&M budget. I guess we have balancing evils with the feds pushing the bio-fuel drugs from one syndicate and somehow morphing off wire capable trolleys into fixed guideway. What happens when the ETBs on performance enhancing steroids subsidy start to displace light rail projects? I bet that given the same grants money an ETB network is going to look a lot better than light rail.

  2. It is crucial that they compare *new* trolleybuses, such as those ordered in Vancouver, BC, to new diesel-electrics. The previous study was disastrously wrong because it assumed *old* trolleybuses.

    1. I pointed that out to them, as their site said that trolleys do not have off-wire capability. I requested that they correct that to say that their current fleet does not have the capability* and that some new ones do. The reply basically said “uh huh” and nothing on the website changed.

      *The current ones can travel off wire; it just requires a supervisor/shop truck/wrecker to push or pull the coach.

      1. Metro said at their open house that they are looking at the new generation trolleys that can go off wire for a short distance. This helps with obstructions on the route and is something Metro has long desired.

  3. I have a question about the cost of trolley buses versus diesel bus operations. The electric trolley buses are cheaper to fuel than diesels, but the cost of maintaining the overhead power supply system drives up the operating cost of the trolley buses. How does Metro allocate the cost of park and ride lots in their accounting? Is the cost of building, financing, servicing, maintaining and repairing the P & R lots shared by the trollies, even though no trolley route serves a P & R lot? (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) I would contend that if the cost to maintain the wires is allocated strictly to the cost of trolley operations, then the cost to support the P & R lots should be allocated to the operation of diesel buses only.

    1. Don’t push too hard on that. If you had to build out the wire to serve the suburban P&R routes the ETB’s wouldn’t stand a chance. They’re only being compared for replacement on the existing routes; which is where they shine. What’s that old saying, “If you can make it in Queen Anne you can make it anywhere.” :=

      1. Why not push? The ETBs aren’t designed to run on long distance routes; the ETBs are designed for operating on high density routes with heavy loads and lots of stopping and starting. Nobody is suggesting that the trolley buses should be running out to Issaquah–they wouldn’t be efficient on those routes. The fact that buses from distant suburbs require P&R lots to be effective shouldn’t be ignored. To say that the cost of the P&Rs shouldn’t be considered distorts the cost of providing service to the suburbs. And the cost of building, maintaining, etc. those P&R lots should not be borne by the trolley buses.

        If the cost of the P&Rs is minimal, then it isn’t a big issue. But I would like to see the numbers.

      2. I don’t think they roll the cost of P&R maintenance into the operating cost per hour of buses. I could be dead wrong about that and it would certainly be a game changer for evaluating a lot of things besides the ETB vs Hybrid issue. Anyway, I think it’s pretty clear they’re only looking at the existing routes which don’t need P&R lots so I think it’s really a non-issue. Then again, like I said, maybe I’m wrong.

    2. DSA’s John Scholes tried to make this same point during the trolley system evalyuation open houses, but KC Metro basically said No. They’re not going to deal with the minefield of Park-and-rides vs trolley wire, they’re just going to look at the cost of running diesel hybrids on the existing ETB system.

  4. Matt the Engineer’s dispute of the cost differential (linked) completely ignores the cost of overhead maintenance – his bullet points appear to indicate that he is diputing cost comparisons based on the cost of purchase and maintenance of the coaches alone.

    The reality is that once you factor in the cost of overhead maintenance (not just the wiring but switching and power substation maintenance), trolley buses ARE more expensive.

    That reality (again – ignored totally by MTE) considered, the question then becomes: so what?

    1. “rolley buses ARE more expensive” Exactly what is your reality based on? I looked at the report in depth. The fact is yes, it’s hard to tell where/how they dealt with trolley wire maintenance – did they assume it comes out of another budget or did they roll the costs into their engine overhaul costs that came out at over 6x the amount of diesel engine overhauls (note: ETB’s don’t have engines). The fact is, they fudged the numbers so much it makes the entire report worthless.

      I’d be open to the argument that wire maintenance is expensive. But it’s far from a given. We’re talking about simple electric machines being called more expensive on the cost and maintenance side than diesel engines with the same electric machines built in (ok, a bit more complex versions of the same machines). That flies in the face of logic. Compare that real cost difference – times hundreds of buses – to wire maintenance, and I’m not so sure wire maintenance wins out.

      “the question then becomes: so what?” I completely agree. ETB’s are better even if they end up costing more. But they’ve created a biased, worthless report. And biased worthless reports can be dangerous weapons.

      1. Buses that aren’t “rolley” aren’t worth much :=

        The original report had some pretty serious flaws. I think that’s indicative of the agency bias to kill the ETB’s in lieu of the pending collapse of the capital buget.

        It’s not just the electronics and electric engines which I agree the new (and I think better) serial hybrids will have there’s also the trolley mechanism itself which is a pretty complex and low volume item. I don’t know how much they weigh but there’s got to be some hefty expense in their design, purchase and maintenance. Then since it’s low volume or custom replacement parts start to be a big issue. You end up “owning” your own fabrication and design facility. Not that that’s bad but it is expensive.

      2. “The original report had some pretty serious flaws. I think that’s indicative of the agency bias to kill the ETB’s in lieu of the pending collapse of the capital buget.”

        That original report was not done by Metro, hence the current in-depth study being done by Metro.

    2. Wire maintenance is cheap. Seriously. Unless you’re having problems with theft and vandalism, or with vehicle strikes taking the wires down, wire maintenance is remarkably inexpensive.

  5. Part of the evaluation should be to actually drive the diesel/hybrid buses on the trolley routes to see how well they do going up some of the steep hills in Seattle.

    1. If diesel/hybrid buses are chosen to replace trollies they will be built differently than the regular d/h buses. The trolley replacement d/h buses would be a separate fleet, they will have different transmissions and they will be geared for hill climbing and braking. If d/h buses replace trollies, those buses won’t be interchanged with buses that travel on the freeways–they won’t be able to maintain freeway speeds with their special gearing.

  6. Anybody know if the current and/or future/new electric trolley’s generate power when braking and going down hill? If so, (I would hope) does that power generation contribute to the bottom line? It may be negligible.

    1. I don’t know how much power it generates, jv, but yes, it’s possible. Regenerative braking doesn’t require a hybrid engine – diesel-powered railroad locomotives do it today.

      1. Regen braking requires either electric supply lines (overhead or third rail) or a battery — you need somewhere to store the regenerated electricity.


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