Photo by Atomic Taco


Last night Metro held an open house detailing the initial findings of the Trolley Evaluation Study. The purpose of this study was to determine if the purchase, operating and maintenance costs of electric trolleybuses exceeds that of diesel-electric series hybrids. The initial findings, released two weeks ago, summarized the preliminary findings, indicate that electric trolley buses outperform diesel hybrid buses in comparisons based on cost, energy, and environmental effects. This study is not about whether or not the trolley system should be expanded or what the new buses should look like (e.g. three door boarding).

The presentation provided a few more concrete numbers. It is important to note that the study was based on present-day facts and figures and not projections or speculations. For example, one citizen at the meeting suggested that ridership would improve with the purchase of trolleys over hybrids. Metro reps suggested that was speculation, and that the study would assume ridership was not affected by bus type.

The FTA standard for the vehicle’s useful life is 15 years for a trolley and 12 for a diesel hybrid. The cost difference for 60 foot buses is $1.285m for a trolley vs. $785,000 for a hybrid. Because there are many manufacturers offering hybrid buses, the figure for hybrids was easy to obtain. Since fewer manufacturers produce trolleys, these numbers were based on those paid by other North American agencies and quotes from manufactures such as New Flyer and Vossloh Kiepe. This annualized cost for this report was calculated over one life-cycle for each vehicle type. Also included was fixed-guideway grant money—something the feds give out to operators of trolley networks. This money would mostly be used to cover the difference in capital cost of the trolleys. Not included in the 2009 audit but evaluated here were the costs to decommission the trolley infrastructure ($37 million) and the costs to expand fuel capacity at the base ($5 million). More after the jump.

The initial pamphlet indicated that Metro is only pursuing trolleys with an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) to allow them to travel off-wire. Two types of APUs were evaluated—diesel and battery—and more detailed numbers were released in this presentation. Diesel APUs, which are used in Philadelphia, have a range of 150 miles compared to battery APUs’ range of just 2.5 miles. Battery APUs are used by trolleys in San Francisco, Dayton, OH, Boston, and Vancouver, BC. Metro hinted that these numbers were based off older technologies, and that technological advancements in the near future might push that to four or five miles. Battery APUs also allow for a maximum speed of 40 mph versus 25 for diesel APUs. Battery APUs also fare better in acceleration and “cutover” time because they are all electric.

Because of their electric motors, trolleys can accelerate and travel at faster speeds on steep grades. Metro compared these to hybrids that would be geared lower to help them climb grades. Being geared lower also limits their top speed. Trolleys, however, are limited by the APU in how far they can travel off wire.

The report assumed that trolleys would put out 304 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions annually compared to the hybrids’ 6,625. 2% of Seattle City Light’s energy comes from non-clean sources.

For visual impact, the study assumed that something that blocked the view of anything was a negative impact. In this report we have a new Photoshopped picture of Rainier with and without overhead wire. Because there are trees and power lines hanging over the trolley wire, the change is subtle. The same can be said for the view off the Jose Rizal Bridge that we saw in the pamphlet. Personally I would have chosen a photo of the 44 wire at 55th & Market in Ballard to show how much of a difference removing the wire makes. But the wire isn’t always bad—one citizen reported that he enjoys seeing the wire throughout his neighborhood as it reminds him of Seattle’s streetcar heritage.

Most interesting is the table showing what would be required to make diesel hybrids more cost effective. Any of the following would do the trick:

  • Fixed guideway funding would have to reduce to 31% of its current level
  • Electricity prices would have to increase 20% per year
  • Diesel hybrid bus lifespans would have to increase to 17 years (currently at 12)*
  • Trolley bus purchase price would need to increase by 34% or hybrids would have to decrease by 48%.

Metro would like your feedback on this report through May. Network expansion, what color the buses will be, or how many doors or seats they have is not under consideration at this time. They’re looking for anything they may have omitted in the study. The findings from the study will be incorporated into Metro’s 2012-2013 budget to be approved by the county council this November.

*Metro has had a history of running buses past their useful lives.

24 Replies to “Trolley Open House Report”

  1. Good write up. I’m going to take the liberty of reposting what I learned in addition to that, which I mostly obtained from one-on-one chats with Metro staff and the consultants afterwards:

    In three words: Metro gets it. I came away very satisfied that they had the facts right and everyone I spoke to — planners, mechanics, higher-ups — were, in the light of these (preliminary) findings, very positive on trolleys. Moreover, while the possibilities of expansion were explicitly beyond the scope of the public presentations and Q&A, the staff are well aware of the possibilities there, and the routes they mentioned (unprompted) as compelling candidates are the same three that everyone on here always talks about, the 8, 11 and 48. Other routes mentioned by various staff as possibilities include the 5, 15/18, and RapidRide E.

    So there is reason to be optimistic, very optimistic, about the continuance and expansion of the trolley network. That said, it’s much too soon to talk about hanging new wire. The lack of layover space downtown is only part of the reason for the partial dieselization of the 36. The next shakeup will bring the almost-complete electrification of that route, but that will tap out the platform hours available from the current trolley fleet (more on this below.) Moreover, any significant expansion of the trolley fleet would require either an expansion of Atlantic Base or setting up Ryerson or Central to handle trolleys. Tim (AtomicTaco) pointed out that the APUs make make this much cheaper than it would otherwise need to be.

    Some more esoteric points that were of interest to me:

    * The long tail of the 4 down to Judkins Park is considered by planners to be as pointless as most of us here think it is. That part of the route was put there in the ’40s because the streetcar line it replaced went there, and for no other reason; it’s never been changed since. The weird couplet between Dearborn and Judkins exists because those streets, at the time, were too narrow for two-way streetcar operation.

    * Metro expects the trolley APUs to almost eliminate weekend dieselization. Most dieselization is due to construction, not maintenance of the OCS, and doesn’t require the poles to be taken down, just for the power to be off. This is trivial to work around with an APU.

    * Metro evaluated trolley vs hybrid maintenance costs using expected costs for the Orions. This matters because serial hybrids like the Orions climb hills much better and with far less wear on the drivetrain than parallel hybrids like the current New Flyers.

    * Metro used no speculative factors in this analysis. The fact that electric traction might induce ridership was left out. Similarly they did not guestimate increased maintenance costs for the hybrids for the same reason, although as I note in my previous point, serial hybrids geared down for hillclimbing would perform pretty well on our hills, and I doubt it would be that much more than the fleet average.

    * Metro has a specific pot of money for small trolley modifications like passing and layover wire. If lots of people bitch about trolley platooning, for example, we might get some extra wire at 1st & Mercer or maybe on Beacon Hill. I pointed out that passing wire does no good if drivers don’t #$$#%@! use it.

    * Spokane is seriously thinking of purchasing a handful of 60′ trolleybusses as circulators for its downtown core. I have no more details on that, only that they might be interested in piggybacking on our contract.

    * The reason artics aren’t used on the 2/3/4 is stress on the artic joint as they pass over hill breaks downtown. Those joints don’t like flexing in the vertical plane.

    So, the one thing that is important to make sure we get on the agenda is ensuring that Metro locks in options for plenty more trolleybusses in its contract. Adding any new route to the trolley network will require an expansion of the fleet from its current size, and although this study is expressly limited to replacement of the fleet and continuation of the existing network, there’s no reason we can’t tell the county to put those options in the contract.

    So, I encourage those who want to see more trolley routes to do as I’m about to do, and email the outreach person,, and express your support for buying more trolleys, and asking the county to include options in the contract for many more trolleys than the 159 to maintain the current levels.

    Two questions I didn’t ask: interior configuration of the busses (no-one wanted to get into that yet) and whether we’ll be able to get more platform hours out of the same number of new trolleys (forgot.)

    1. A trolleybus circulator would make sense in my opinion. There’d be a limited number of switches and, if service is frequent enough, it would probably save money.

    2. Great observations and writeup too.

      question I didn’t ask: whether we’ll be able to get more platform hours out of the same number of new trolleys

      I think you answered that: “The next shakeup will bring the almost-complete electrification of that route, but that will tap out the platform hours available from the current trolley fleet”
      If we’re only doing a 1:1 replacement, new buses aren’t going to let us run any more service hours. But if we put in options for more buses, we could probably squeeze a year or two out of a few coaches in the current fleet until their replacements (expansion) arrive.

      Also, on base expansion: since nothing in the current fleet has an APU, everything has to move around the base on wire. But if you could move around without wire, there’s nothing to stop coaches from being stored and maintained at other bases. In fact, we could move the 7 to South Base. It’s only three miles from the end of the Prentice loop, and that would free up at least a dozen spaces at Atlantic Base. You’d definitely have to install something at South that would allow those coaches to recharge–round trip that’s 6 miles–probably beyond the range of a battery APU. A diesel APU would have no problem. But it seemed that Metro was leaning towards battery APUs.

      1. The reason I meant to ask that question is because while a 1:1 replacement would not allow us to electrify a new route, if we can get a few more more platform hours out of a same-size fleet, we’d be able (subject to $) to completely electrify the 36 and improve daytime headways on the 2/13, something we cannot do now.

  2. Not understanding this sentence: “electric trolley buses over diesel hybrid buses in comparisons based on cost, energy, and environmental effects”

    “over” in what way?

  3. I don’t really understand the focus on “off-wire” use. Isn’t this just going to be used in rare situations (detours around wire/road work, for a few short seconds when a pole jumps the wire before the driver puts it back, etc)?

    I’m from SF, and these are the only times that off-wire use is needed, and is always far, FAR less than 2.5 miles (usually a few blocks at most), because it’s a pain in the butt to put the poles back on the wires. Is there something I’m missing on how this will be used in Seattle?

    1. There’s not that much discussion from Metro about routine off-wire use, except the cases that you indicate; those ideas are mostly being floated by others.

      Perhaps the biggest advantage for the APU (as Metro sees it) is avoiding weekend dieselization. Right now, a construction project in the U-District can force miles and miles of wire out of service because of the through routing of the 7, 43, 44 and 49. Those dieselizations essentially force Metro to pay twice to run that service: once for the aggregated maintenance of the OCS, and again for the diesel.

    2. It’s a big deal for us since our current off-wire ability is limited to the coach’s ability to coast.

      In revenue service, it’s likely that the off-wire capability will be used for less than a mile due to downed wire, wire where the power is off, construction, police activity, etc.

      However extended off-wire capability allows greater flexibility for off-wire coaches. One example is our route 44. In the AM, coaches have to run all the way from Atlantic Base to the terminal in Ballard via Capitol Hill. There’s more demand headed the opposite way, so the first couple of trips use diesel coaches that deadhead on a much shorter route to reach Ballard. A diesel APU gives the flexibility of a diesel coach–being able to operate much further off-wire–but all the benefits of a trolley.

      1. Thanks for the explanation guys. I especially didn’t realize that there were any modern trolleybuses left without some type of APU – I do remember some older models in SF about ten years ago that would completely lose power when the poles jumped the wires, but those vehicles looked 30 years old at the time (probably weren’t, but looked it). I had never seen or ridden anything looking that old in Seattle.

      2. Chris,
        Our trolleys, particularly the 40-foot Gilligs, don’t look 30 years old because the bodies/shells on them aren’t. I think they’re all from the early- to mid-90s. The electronics and propulsion systems, though, are from the 70s and were cannibalized from earlier buses.

      3. The ‘off-wire’ EPU Diesel engine is used in Philadelphia on a daily basis. It’s used for all sorts of reasons. One of the biggest objections to trackless trolleys in the old days in Philly was the fact that they were tied to the overhead wires and subject to all kinds of delays and tie-ups at any time. The delays and tie-ups included police activity blocking a street and fire or emergency vehicles blocking coaches too. Long term delays included water/sewer line construction, street paving, overhead wire work, etc. Prior to the present ‘off-wire’ capability, passengers were delayed and in many cases, substitute Diesel buses had to be found and pressed into service to get people to their destinations. Due to the inflexibility of trackless trolleys to detour around such situations, transit management in Philly hated them.

        It’s difficult to keep a fleet of Diesel buses in reserve just in case they’re needed. This is a costly waste of equipment and manpower. A person standing at a transit stop waiting for a trackless trolley to go to work, school, a doctor’s appointment, etc., doesn’t want to hear about why the coach never came. Public transit must be a realiable, dependable alternative to the private automobile if we ever hope to get people to use it.

        With the Diesel EPU, Philly’s trackless trolleys now have all of the flexibility of Diesel buses. I highly recommend the Diesel EPU rather than a battery EPU because the range is so much greater. With batteries, they need to be recharged before they can be used again. With the Diesel EPU, it can be used many times a day. The operator presses a dashboard button to automatically lower the trolley poles and another button to start the engine. The EPU engine is also used if a coach stops on a breaker in the overhead wire. The coach is no longer stuck in that spot until pushed. The operator simply flips the engine on, moves up a couple of feet and resumes electric operation without leaving his seat. I’ve seen this done many times lately in Philly.

        Another great benefit of the EPU is that in the case of a dewirement in a high traffic or dangerous location, the operator moves to a safe spot to rewire the trolley poles. I could go on and on…..

      4. You make very strange arguments in favor of diesel EPUs. Almost everything you mention can be done — in some cases better — by battery APUs. Rome has trolleys that can travel five miles on the flat before each recharge. I don’t know that the recovery time is, but I’m pretty certain given the recharge rates that SDOT is spec’ing for the First Hill Streetcar that it would be measured in tens of minutes.

        Regardless, being used “multiple times a day” is certainly possible with batteries, and one-block detours due to construction would would not tax a battery at all. You mention using the APU for getting through dead spots. The battery is much better in this case, as you don’t have to crank the engine just for ten seconds of auxiliary power.

        You say it’s expensive to keep a fleet of diesels in reserve. Being as Metro is going to run a fleet containing a huge majority of diesels indefinitely into the future, this is immaterial.

        Diesels have lots of disadvantages. SEPTA’s diesels cannot climb grades of more than 6% or travel faster than 25 mph. The former alone makes them useless in Seattle. Of course, we could spec a bigger engine, but that increases the cost. And whilst I’m not a bus mechanic, I’m pretty sure that a battery costs less to buy and much less to maintain than an engine.

        There is only one advantage to diesels, and that is the longer off-wire range. And I simply don’t see a use case for that functionality that justifies the extra cost and complexity.

        Finally, the consultants and staff I spoke to last night seem to concur with the assessment I’ve laid out above. The report is expected to recommend the purchase of battery-APU trolleys, should the council choose the trolley option.

    3. Visiting San Francisco some years back, remember watching the new artic trolleybus I was waiting for on Van Ness turn a corner two blocks away and motor into my zone on batteries, with both poles waving like flyrods.

      Driver told me he hadn’t noticed the change in the propulsion source, and also thanked me for pointing out that the dashboard “over-ride” was mis-set- he’d wondered why his poles went left at every switch. He was new on trolleys.

      A moving bus with dewired poles at wire level is really dangerous. Not only do broken contact and spanwires slash and electrocute, but hardware hanging over an intersection weighs tons. Hence “retrievers” to get poles and shoes away from the wire- formerly spring-loaded mechanisms having to be rewound by hand, a frequent cause of injury.

      Current mechanism electronically slacks tension on poles at the base- though there’s still the danger of a shoe getting caught in the wire before it drops, making a stop on dewirement imperative. Especially if batteries can keep the bus rolling under power while dewired.

      Drivers must go back and rewire by hand- much safer now than before. Has anyone worldwide yet developed a set of wire-seeking poles?

      Above all, trolleybus driving should definitely be paid- and trained and supervised- commensurate with the extra skill required. By experience, I think it takes a year full-time to be good at it, so retention counts.

      Mark Dublin

      1. I’ve read of bus routes that are wire-free for a stretch, and have V-shaped devices at stations where they reattach to wires automatically. I could imagine putting these devices at, say, every major timepoint stop and have the buses automatically reconnect there.

      2. Well if we get trolleys like in this video, I don’t think it will be possible for anyone on the bus to not realize the bus is running on batteries with that annoying beeping.

      3. Matt the Engineer: you can still see such devices at CPS, where the were used by the dual-power Bredas before the bus tunnel retrofit.


        Automatic rewiring of trolley poles is ‘off-the-shelf’ technology used in many places worldwide. It was done statewide in New Jersey as far back as 1936, with a fleet of hundreds of “all-service” vehicles. Seattle employed the technology in the trolley coach subway {with the dual mode coaches} until it was converted to light rail. Boston uses automatic rewiring of trolley poles on their Silver Line route where the dual mode trackless trolleys enter the subway.

        In the case of a dewirement in Philly, both trolley poles automatically retrieve to protect the overhead wire system.

  4. Maybe it’s the same problem the President has insisting two and two be four, but wish Metro would be more emphatic about why certain routes need wire: their proven history of converting combustion drive-trains to greasy iron filings.

    It’s possible that a hybrid package could handle the Counterbalance and James Street east of Third at PM rush and survive mechanically, though curious about operating speed.

    Would also like to see more attention to upgrading the overhead. In 2015, it shouldn’t be asking too much to take special work at street speed.

    And can anybody tell me how much it would cost to get the substation breaker a block up the Queen Anne Counterbalance moved someplace flat, where it should have been put in the first place? Mistake should have been redlined and corrected on paper before the first wire went up- and not leaving a dead-spot on our steepest grade 30 years later.

    Mark Dublin

  5. About fleet size: we could also get a lot more use out of the same number of trolleybuses if Metro and the City of Seattle agreed that if a route is worth the expense of trolleywire, it’s also worth giving buses reserved lanes and signal priority.

    Mark Dublin

  6. Bruce,

    The reason for the 25 mph speed restriction om Philly’s trackless trolleys in the Diesel EPU mode is not because of equipment limitations. SEPTA set that speed limit because anything over that speed and they’d be required to pay increased insurance and license fees. Under 25 mph, it’s considered a trackless trolley.

    In many instances in Philly, the trackless trolleys are run ‘of-wire’ for many miles on a line, multiple times a day. Just last week, for example, on Rt. 59, there was an electrical problem that caused the coaches to operate ‘off-wire’ in both directions from Castor & Hellerman Streets all the way to Bells Corner. And that was each trip, all day !! No batteries could accomplish that, no matter how rapidly they recharge. I saw a two-mile long parade and street fair on Frankford Avenue some time ago that required a lengthy detour in both directions {every trip}. There wasn’t a very close parallel street either. On Rt. 75 a gas main construction project necessitated a lengthy detour in both directions on every trip. I could go on and on. In the old days, these things would have required bus substitution on those lines. That is no longer the case.

    A transit system can not afford to keep Diesel buses {and operators} sitting idle just in case of a tie-up on a trackless trolley line. Its become routine now in Philly that street supervision isn’t even needed or used for detours anymore. Control sends our a radio message to the operators with the details and the operators do it themselves. I’ve personally witnessed this. They simply arrive at the detour, drop the poles, turn the Diesel EPU on and turn off of the route. This would be the same if it were on a Diesel bus line. Transit systems can not afford to waste and throw taxpayer’s money away.

    1. Your statement of facts about the 25 mph limit of the trolleys conflicts directly with the findings of the consultants Metro is using, who talked to all the trolley operators in the US. I have never been on a bus (ETB route or otherwise) in Seattle that had to detour for 5+ miles, and I find the likelihood of it happening to be sufficiently unlikely as to not offset the disadvantages of diesel APUs.

      The only long-term dieselization we currently have in Seattle is the 70, which is due to construction that, I believe, simply requires a short section of wire to be turned off — no reroute. We have parades through downtown fairly frequently, and we usually manage to arrange it so that trolleys stay running, even with no APUs. I find your arguments unmoving, and Metro seems to also.


      Case in point: the March of Dimes run. This event looks like it’s going to shut down 1st Ave and other major arterials downtown, yet there’s only one trolley reroute (for the 3/4) that involves coming out from under the wire, for about 2/3 of a mile on Mercer St. Battery APU will handle that just fine.

    3. Currently if there is an reroute in effect–accident, police activity, downed wire, etc.–we don’t send diesels out. Or if we do, I’ve never heard about it.

      Our solution? Stick a half ton van behind the coach and floor it. OK maybe not floor it, but that is the reason why the supervisors’ vehicles are equipped with push bars. With a battery APU, you don’t call the supervisor any more. Still gotta drop the poles, though there will probably be a button on the dash for that.

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