SounderBruce (Flickr)

Mike Lindblom, in The Seattle Times:

Federal money for Madison Street bus-rapid transit is on hold because Seattle and King County Metro can’t get the trailblazing electric vehicles that officials promised.

The agencies sought clean, wire-powered trolleybuses since voters approved the Move Seattle property-tax levy in 2015 and the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016, which each provide partial funding.

But the sole qualified manufacturer, New Flyer Industries, says it doesn’t have the proper kind of bus available.

As we wrote last week, the procurement issues dogging the Madison BRT project have been confusing to say the least.  Lindblom’s Times piece yesterday does an excellent job laying it all out.

SDOT, who is spearheading the project and corralling the lion’s share of the funding, has set the bar high: they want an electric vehicle capable of serving up to 18,000 daily riders on a street that features a steep grade (so steep that a streetcar is out of the question).  They also want doors on both sides to accommodate center-running lanes through First Hill. That’s a tall order. Metro, who will operate the line, wants to find a vehicle that meets that bar, but they’re running into a roadblock in New Flyer which, thanks to Buy American provisions, is the only possible supplier.

New Flyer isn’t saying they can’t make the buses, but they would be a custom job. The First Hill Streetcar project taught us that custom jobs can be difficult to deliver and maintain.  The project already looks like’s slipping to 2022, ten years from when it was initially proposed in the Transit Master Plan.

Changing the gearing and adding more doors on New Flyer’s standard electric 60′ coaches to accommodate the hills isn’t nearly as difficult as adding a hybrid drivetrain to a streetcar, of course, but further complicating matters is a recalcitrant Federal Transit Administration that appears to be slow walking urban transit projects.

None of these are insurmountable obstacles.  And switching from overhead wires to diesel-electric hybrids or battery buses, while not ideal, means less wire needs to be hung. That could save money and reduce operational complexity.

With all this uncertainty, and more tradeoff discussions sure to come, it’s worth keeping our eyes on the prize.  The real win here is high-capacity transit, running in dedicated right-of-way, from downtown to Madison Valley. That goal can be more-or-less achieved tomorrow using Metro’s existing fleet and a bucket of red paint.  Everything else is gravy.

58 Replies to “Madison BRT is Testing the Limits of Electric Buses”

  1. Electric motors under wire should be able to deliver the highest torque and best Hill climbing performance. If the project were reconfigure d with reverse center runningand/or 40 foot coaches, maybe there are off the shelf products. Low geared diesels won’t be a good or quiet experience

  2. So now we are going to have $4 million dollar hyper custom buses that can only run on this line and no flexibility for replacement buses when they inevitably break down.

    Just design the new line around standard fleet buses, like using our brand new trolleys.

    1. The same buses would be ordered for other lines that have center lanes. Specifically SDOT has mentioned the 44 as a possibility.

      1. That’s just rationalizing a bad investment.

        How would using unicorn-buses on Route 44 improve speed, increase capacity, lower overall operating costs, and/or enhance reliability? And do so in a way that a similar investment using existing vehicles or improved infrastructure wouldn’t?

      2. It was said in the context of converting the 44 to a RapidRide line. The reason for left-door buses is so that they can use center transit-only lanes, which SDOT said it’s considering for between I-5 and 15th Ave NE. Putting the transit lanes in the center improves speed even more than putting them on the right because you don’t have cars crossing them for right turns or to get into driveways. That’s why Madison will have center lanes between 8th and 13th, and 1st will have center lanes.

        If you don’t have left-door buses, then the only way to have center lanes is to have the buses running in the opposite direction as the adjacent car lane. Which is a possibility if SDOT can be convinced to reconsider it. But it’s theoretically less safe because pedestrians aren’t used to looking those directions in those lanes, and it means four adjacent lanes of opposite-moving traffic rather than two.

      3. Given SDOT’s past records, I’m guessing that as soon as the outreach process starts, people will scream about bus lanes increasing the time for their driving commutes, and SDOT will immediately fold and narrow the scope of RapidRide 44 to things that don’t impact cars, such as off-board fare payment.

        It would be wonderful if SDOT could prove me wrong on this one.

      4. The paople along Madison did not scream, and SDOT didn’t. Is the 45th corridor more prone to this?

    2. OK Seattle history’s already got the answer:


      Now nobody at all can say with a straight face that this won’t work on Madison. Let’s somebody go check if there’s still any mechanism underneath Queen Anne Avenue. We’ll know for a fact that nobody’s got any software they’ll declare proprietary.


      1. Isn’t there a system in Italy somewhere that uses a cable car assist to help streetcars climb a steep incline?

  3. If someone thinks a diesel bus can do this, let’s have proof! Drive one to Seattle, ask for volunteer riders to fill up the bus, and see what happens. Let’s start with existing Metro buses right away. Then other manufacturers can pitch their vehicles.

    Much of this speculation can be put to rest with a field test.

    1. We already know what existing Metro buses can do, and what all previous articulated Metro buses did. Other manufacturers won’t bother, not if they have to spend thousands of dollars to send a bus for a little stunt.

    2. As Frank said, these wouldn’t be diesel. They would be diesel electric, or all electric. Presumably, they would have enough horse power to get up the hill at a good clip. In an ideal world, you would run wire, but if that is proving to be a problem, then it is worth looking at other buses.

      1. Don’t existing diesel-electric hybrid buses in Metro’s existing fleet already go up similar grades. For instance, the 48 going up Montlake can be pretty steep, yet it seems to manage it ok.

      2. It manages it but not as quickly as a 40′ bus. I’ve seen this ever since the 226 got articulated buses in the early 80s: they accelerate more slowly and climb hills more slowly than single buses. It’s to the point that if I’m on a route that usually has an artic, I get a feeling of joy if a single bus happens to be assigned to that run, or if one of those parallel low-volume routes like the 47 or 27 happens to come first and goes close enough to where I’m going.

        On the 136/137 it’s a dilemma because if it’s a single bus then it’l be snappier but the tradeoff is it’s overcrowded and I may have to stand with my three bulky bags from Costco. The ideal situation would be if the G could use the same buses as the 12 but as many as necessary to handle the capacity. But there’s the high cost of drivers.

      3. Twenty-Fourth is less than half as steep as Spring. It isn’t even a fair fight.

      4. Doesn’t the 44 already have 60-foot trolley busses? What is the grade on Market at its steepest point? From my layperson perspective it doesn’t seem much steeper than the grades on Madison.

        Is there a resource out there that indicates the grade of various streets in the city?

  4. Just go back to the original plan of running 40′ buses. It’ll cost more to operate in the peak, but apparently the STBD has ops money coming out of its ears. New Flyer could put a single left door in a 40’er if that’s really essential to the design.

    1. I think demand will be pretty high during peak hours. The plan right now is to run the buses every six minutes. Initially they were talking about running every five minutes during peak, but settled on six all day. So I think the assumption is that six is barely enough to deal with capacity. Assuming that is the case, that is ten buses an hour. With a third less capacity, you would need an extra five buses an hour during rush hour. That isn’t cheap — that is when operation costs are at their highest. It also means you need more special buses (even if they are 40 footers) as initially these will be our only buses with doors on both sides. As we add more in the way of center running buses, these could probably be reused, but that is more or less kicking the can down the road.

      It should be looked at, but my guess it is cheaper to run hybrid or off wire electric buses in the short run.

  5. I’m with the author on this one:

    “The real win here is high-capacity transit, running in dedicated right-of-way, from downtown to Madison Valley. That goal can be more-or-less achieved tomorrow using Metro’s existing fleet and a bucket of red paint.”

    SDOT and Metro have demonstrated time and again that they don’t have what it takes to successfully execute complex transit schemes. They’re so busy trying to impress everyone with fanciful ideas like streetcars, or new routes with custom-built buses, that they can’t get the basics right – like realizing that the solutions they’re pushing don’t do anything to solve the problems at hand.

    At the pace they’re going with their current scheme, it will have taken them a decade or more of fumbling before the route is up-and-running – with more headaches to follow given the inevitable maintainence issues of having non-standard buses dedicated to this route.

    And then we’ll see the inevitable good-money-after-bad rationalization: we’ll ‘save money by buying in bulk’ and have an entire fleet of these non-standard buses, creating new routes for them to rationalize the cost (a la a third streetcar route to make the first two worthless routes worthwhile).

    Enough already.

    Figure out a way to make this work with existing buses and off-the-shelf technology, or admit that you overpromised and focus your limited resources on other, solveable problems. It’s not as though there aren’t a million other problems with tranist in Seattle that don’t also require fixing.

    1. I think the problem is almost entirely SDOT’s. it’s ehat happens when an agency thinks that they can order and pay to operate whatever vehicle they want — with little to no real-world experience.

      I think Metro would have not made the mistakes that we are seeing had they been in charge.

    1. Easy to say now, but wait until you are standing at the corner and the bus passes you by because it is full.

      1. This isn’t a hard one, Ross. Just do right what DSTT was planned for, and didn’t: Run 40′ buses in groups of four or so called “Platoons” like the Viet Nam war movie. Dispatched from the end of the line at regular intervals.


  6. Its 2 miles from the waterfront to 23rd. Let’s put in a gondola – at this rate, it may even ultimately cost less to build and operate. How many stations would actually be needed? Maybe 4? Briefly googling around, this has been done elsewhere in the world.

    Okay, bring on the hate.

    1. Let’s put in a gondola – at this rate, it may even ultimately cost less to build and operate.

      *Citation needed*

      The Portland gondola cost $57 million to build, with 2 stations, spanning a grand total of 0.6 miles.

      Meanwhile, Madison, from the waterfront to 23rd, is approximately 2 miles. So triple the distance and double the stations. The complexity of that would probably push $300+ million, not to mention the highly specialized maintenance needs and costs. That doesn’t take into account that the Portland Gondola has a high bluff to allow it to clear obstacles nor the much more dense area surrounding Madison.

      And of course, when a bus breaks down, people aren’t stranded for 7 hours (Roosevelt Island Tramway, April 2006).

      Sorry. No hate, just facts.

  7. The last time Seattle and Metro wanted a specialized brand new bus with off the shelf features similar to this, we got the Breda. The reason we got the Breda is only 2 companies would even try what Metro and Seattle wanted. Breda was the better one. No matter what bus goes on to that route, it will be a newer version of the Breda. What manager wants to make that decision again and be remembered for it?

    1. Sorry, Jimmy but like Humphrey Bogart’s trip to Casablanca for the “Waters”…you were misinformed. The Breda’s were the worst. But like many vehicles in that category, like the streetcar lines in Oslo and Gothenburg that should’ve known better, they got the low bid. Stipulation that should be against the Geneva Conventon.

      The one that was probably best had been built, reputedly pretty swiftly, by Neoplan, from one of their standard buses just to enter this competition. Instead of a transmission, where the transmission would’ve been, the back of the trailer contained an alternator the size of a washing machine. On diesel, the engine powered the electric traction motor.

      On the wire, line current powered same motor. Exactly like a locomotive. Mechanics loved it. Also had the low bid. Problem was that despite their world-wide experience, Neoplan deliberately refused to offer the standard performance bond demanded by the rules.

      I think they were trying to make a point about where we could get a better bus if we needed one bad enough to do the bid over, and submit a higher-end low one. Wasn’t like the world was wiring a road to our door instead of a path.

      Interestingly enough, the traction motor was the only really good thing about the Breda. For a bus heavy enough to crack the world, the six cylinder diesel ..well, when their Tunnel service ended, it turned out that if they took out the pathetic little thing, it would unbalance the rear and. Forget what they did for a weight.

      Therefore: I think Neoplan’s out of business. But my suggestion is to see if an Airstream motor home could be fitted with a Breda trolleymotor. The Portland Aerial Tramway looks specifically like that’s where they got their cars.

      But here’s a Been There Let’s Do It thing for streetcars:
      Somebody give me a reason why not.

      Mark Dublin

      1. I don’tknow what Metro did for weight on that Breda when the engine was removed. I was told they added ABS brakes to be used as a traction control to limit tire skid and hopping problems. Does that sound familiar? I got the information from a mechanic who worked at Metro after the Breda conversion.

  8. SFMTA is building BRT lines designed around standard right-side door buses by including boarding island bus stops. If we can build something like this faster in San Francisco than Seattle, you should be ashamed.

      1. Broad Street in Richmond Virginia, where that photo was taken, has about 3 times the right-of-way as Madison. Blame our forefathers.

      2. The size of the right of way in Richmond does not matter. There is enough room on Madison to have one general traffic lane in each direction plus the very same busway configuration as shown in the photo.

  9. It sounds like the big problem is that new flyer is discontinuing trolley bus manufacturing… This is a big problem for Seattle in general, which is invested heavily in trolley buses.

    This is unfortunate since trolley buses are really ideal for a hilly city like Seattle.

    I think all comments blaming SDOT are a bit off base, since the city has been using trolley buses since the 30’s, and in many cases a diesel bus would probably not work well (such as buses going up queen anne).

    Probably the best thing to do is invest in battery buses at this point…

    1. We’ve gotten conflicting information. One is that it would be a lot of custom work to design an articulated bus that can go up steep hills at full speed, and the company isn’t sure if it wants to bother with it. The other is that the company wants to get out of the trolley business and our order just missed the window to be the last ones enthusiastically built.

    2. What the company is probably most worried about it will give a bus that doesn’t deliver and then it will be on the hook for warranty upgrades which may be expensive and may still not work, plus the bad reputation it might get.

    3. It’s probably because all the cities in the US and Canada with trolleys have replaced their fleets in the last 10 years, Dayton is the last one to right now. It’s probably 10 years before the earliest are due for their replacements.

  10. So, Red Paint for Marion anyone? I absolutely like the right-side island platform idea. You can’t have platforms opposite each other, but you can have them on opposite sides of the crossing street. The buses just have to “jog” crossing the intersection.

    Grant, it’s not as comfortable for people waiting; you have to armor the platform but there will be only three at the most in the center running section.

  11. Remind me again how far east the proposed BRT line is planned to go? Madison Park? But between the west terminal and Broadway, the street just doesn’t say “Rapid” to me.

    But it also doesn’t say that 40′ platooned buses on reserved lanes with preempted signals won’t be enough faster than present service to just use i ’til LINK station opens at Madison and Boren. Think transit mall instead of bullet train and we’d have a park with buses through it.

    Nice presence for the hospital district.


    1. To MLK. The original terminus was 23rd but the community insisted it continue to Madison Valley. There wasn’t enough money to extend it to Madison Park. That’s like how RR Roosevelt was originally going to go to 45th with an option for Northgate, and there wasn’t enough money for Northgate but the community pushed to extend it as far as feasible and argued that 65th was important, so it’s going to 65th.

  12. If there is no USA manufacturer, can we get a waiver of Buy America rules? There are electric trolley buses around the world. There must be suppliers.

    1. Or, decide to drop the purchase of buses from the request and buy them with local money. Say they’re $3 million each including the tariff. That’s $39 million. The First Hill Association could pay for it with a LID.

    2. No. “Buy American” is mainly about steel and carmakers and things like that, our little problem trolleybuses and trains is too small compared to the rhetoric that we’re killing family-wage jobs and mass transit is a statist power grab anyway.

  13. New Flyer is ending the electric trolley models in favor of their new battery powered Xcelisor line. Comes in 35, 40, and 60 foot variants and the 60 foot model is a quad motor powering the center and rear axles and good for steep climbing. It also has a BRT model.

    At this point, may as well go this route or wait for Proterra to introduce their 60 foot artic.

    1. I’m planning to write to SDOT and the council and say that if they can’t get trolleybuses with superior hill-climbing abiliity they should slow down and look at a wider range of alternatives. Madison is not like downtown to the U-District where the buses were getting caught in unpredictable freeway traffic jams and leaving people behind almost every day and there was no alternative but a 35-minute trip on the 49 or 70 or a 1 1/2 hour walk. The 12 is OK, the capacity problems aren’t as severe, and if you don’t want to risk a PM traffic jam you can take a Pine Street bus or the streetcar a few blocks away. The whole point of Madison RR is to have a really good bus corridor, a level above anything Seattle has ever had, with 5-minute travel time from Broadway to 3rd. It would be a shame to water it down to another sluggish bus and again leave First Hill out of superior transit, especially if those buses won’t be replaced again for thirty years.

      1. “if they can’t get trolleybuses with superior hill-climbing abiliity they should slow down and look at a wider range of alternatives.”

        They can can get such trolleybuses. It is just that they might have to go to Europe and buy a high quality, tailor-made trolleybus, possibly with both centre and rear axles powered. At the moment the Buy America Act allows US manufacturers to say “take it or leave it” to transit administrations, particularly in a specialised market like trolleybuses. How about a couple examples of European trolleybus development:

        Swiss Trolley Plus:

        Iveco’s new trolleybus in BRT mode. Collaboration between France and Skoda Electric of Czech Republic

        Trolleybuses are well-known for being the best hill-climbing bus and the standard 40ft trolleybuses used in Seattle and San Francisco prove it. It amazes me that the 60ft version is seen as underpowered. Even for a 60ft trolleybus, the 240kW motor should be at least adequate.

        I’m not sure what you mean by the “wider range of alternatives”. If you mean using the existing XT40 trolleybus on an increased frequency, then I agree that would be worth examining.

        But if you mean other types of bus then no. How would diesel hybrids do a better job than trolleybuses on the steep grade? As for battery buses, at the moment there is no practical operational experience of 60ft battery buses even on flat routes. New Flyer’s XE 60 is coming out soon, but it needs to prove itself first. And even in the long run, intensive duty on a steep route could prove a challenge –heavy battery drain uphill requiring lengthy recharging times. This is not a recipe for operational efficiency or service reliability.

    2. Where did you hear New Flyer is discontinuing trolley bus manufacturing? The Seattle Times article makes no such reference.

      The issue appears to be that they have never built a trolley bus with boarding doors on both sides. The Seattle Times article states this:

      “A 60-foot trolley would require significant modifications to accommodate high grades and street side doors,” said Lindy Norris, the company’s marketing communications director. “We believe it is achievable, but there is significant additional engineering and testing time required.”

    3. It was mentioned in STB comments a few times last week. I don’t know whether it’s accurate or not but there’s been reports that it’s happening.

    4. New Flyer’s battery bus range is called the Xcelsior Charge.

      The 60ft version (called the XE 60) does use the ZF AVE 130 electric portal axle as the centre axle. I mentioned this in an earlier thread a few days ago when this whole issue first broke.

      There is little technical reason why the XE 60 could not be made as a trolleybus. The body, motors and electronic power controller are the same whether the power comes from batteries or mains. You would probably specify only a small battery pack for off-wire capability. As this would run off mains power, you can achieve galvanic isolation using a DC to DC converter.

      So what is the big issue? Has anybody at SDOT asked new Flyer to make a trolleybus version of the XE 60?

  14. I don’t understand the entire discussion. Metro has been running electric trolley buses, primarily 40′, up and down Madison and Marion for decades with no problem. I personally drove a 60′ MAN electric trolley bus (4000) up Marion and Madison in 1999 due to a reroute around WTO chaos. No problem. The reroute was shortly cancelled because the driver who followed me got stuck in the overhead trying to turn from Madison onto Broadway. Put a couple of the Excelsior 60′ trolleys on Route 12 and see how they do…I’ll bet they’ll do fine.

  15. I also was assigned a 60′ MAN trolley bus on Route 10 when it was linked to Route 12. I drove that 60′ bus up and down Marion and Madison all night long. No problem. I also don’t see the problem with doors on both sides of the bus. Streetcars and light rail, which I drove for 9 years, have that. It does make it difficult to substitute a different type of bus on the route. So you have to buy enough buses to have spares.

    1. Chuck, what’s your objection to adjusting transitways so regular right-hand doors can work? Can’t believe those extra doors won’t add expense for installation and maintenance.


  16. If appointed “king of everything” I would keep Madison BRT exactly as the current plans show it. I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in SDOT doing “cutting edge” things without massive headaches and delay, but the ability to use center platforms and the need for “oomph” from electric motors seems worth it (diesels on the 48’s uphill section on 23rd DO struggle annoyingly). Or, can’t we just cede all neat-o projects to ST and just let SDOT paint bus stops, crosswalks, and centerlines?

    But then, on some days, I just walk from the ferry to my home near 25th and Madison in a little over 30 minutes and wonder if all this for 2 stinking miles is worth it.

  17. “If you don’t have left-door buses, then the only way to have center lanes is to have the buses running in the opposite direction as the adjacent car lane. Which is a possibility if SDOT can be convinced to reconsider it. But it’s theoretically less safe because pedestrians aren’t used to looking those directions in those lanes, and it means four adjacent lanes of opposite-moving traffic rather than two.”

    It sounds like SDOT has a “perception” problem with the idea of contra-flow center running transit lanes. Would there be a problem if you had a street with cars running in one direction and buses running in the opposite direction? No, because that’s a standard two way street. So just think of this as two two-ways streets right next to each other and use standard buses.

    1. It can be made to look like two streets; it all depends on the design and decoration. But SDOT seems resistant to doing it. We may have to push SDOT to do it if the left-door buses end up being unaffordable.

  18. Mike, this Scania seems to be for Swedish equivalent to ST Express. It’s about 50′ long. Note steerable rear axle. Excellent vision for passengers. Aisle angles slightly downward from rear to front- like an amphitheater. Though this one, aisle seems flat. But lot of windows.

    Doubt any system with grades that require trolleybuses bother to put sixty-footers on them. They’ve all got 40′ ETB’s for hills. And electric railroads for usual approach to mountains. Through tunnels. Problem isn’t just weight of passenger loads. In any kind of freezing weather, if you don’t leave them parked in the yard, they’ll park themselves across six lanes of traffic. CT drivers tell me double deckers work just fine.

    Hesitate to link this one because pretty sure everybody’s seen it. But will repeat because it really shows what a 40′ trolleybus can do. Fifty miles of wire, Crimea, over the mountains from coast to capital. Read somewhere that Stalin liked trolleybuses. Every home-owner whose street we want to wire knows that.

    Think I told you that Metro was looking at putting the Route 7 in the DSTT. Could have done it with a standard 60′ MAN- standard on 7 and 43-44. My favorite bus career-long. Stewardess excellent idea. But Snoqualmie Pass in December…..would take a giant Skycrane helicopter to get both sections out of nearest canyon. Uhhhh: Wait a minute!

    But no matter how tough they think they are, doubt average high school kid would tangle with a Russian woman of any age in uniform. Look how she pulls rank on her poor little brother with the accordion! Now that the Russians have weaponized adorability…we can spare everybody from Vladimir Putin singing “Blue Moon.” Our elections have had it.

    Mark Yakovlevich DU…blyn

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