30 Years of Trolleybus Advocacy

Long-time transit advocates will be familiar with Ray Polani. Ray has been advocating for a greater role for public transit for decades, most recently focusing on the need to run MAX under the river and underground through downtown for greater speed and efficiency.

Ray is old-school, he doesn’t use a computer. Nonetheless he heard about our recent discussion of Trolleybuses and sent along a piece he authored more than 30 years ago (PDF, 1.5M) on the topic, and asked me to post it, along with a more recent editorial piece.

Here’s to Ray Polani, the dean of transit advocates in Portland.

16 Comments

16 Responses to 30 Years of Trolleybus Advocacy

  1. jim karlock
    October 19, 2006 at 11:43 am Link

    jk:Posted with permission from a national transport policy list. TAR is a transit system auditor:
    TAR: If you have extreme grades, such as the all-time classic, the Sacramento Street line in San Francisco, which heads up Nob Hill with, very commonly, well over 100 passengers in buses with 2×1 seating, then having a locomotive power supply that provides maximum torque at zero RPM is an absolutely wonderful thing. If you have a trolley wire system already in place, then keeping it and using it can usually be justified – but, it might be a good idea to try to have someone do the study who doesn’t being with the recommendation.

    If you do NOT already have the wires up, and if you do NOT have extreme hills, and you aren’t going through a tunnel (although, within the last few years, even this has been solved, as) the nice people in Seattle have found out), then it is pretty hard to justify electric catenary bus, given the many other options available. CNG/LNG is very clean and, with the new low-sulfur fuel requirement, diesel is well over 90% cleaner than it was in, say, 1990, and getting cleaner all the time. Don’t forget, that electric power has to be generated somewhere, somehow, and just about all the not fossil-fuel sources (hydro, nuc) are pretty well maxed out, so if you want to generate new electricity, it is probably going to be by burning something – and, for most of the U.S., particularly where most of the transit use is found, that means coal.

    A few other things:

    1. It generally runs well over $2 million a mile, up to $5 million, to string the wires, plus they require a lot of upkeep (with trolley buses, vehicle maintenance goes down, but right-of-way maintenance goes from not much at all to a real consideration). There really isn’t much difference in cost in operations between internal combustion and electric wire buses (when you do the correct comparison, which means comparing comparable lines – most electric wire bus routes only operate pretty much in and close to the city centers, where the loads tend to be heavy, and if you don’t adjust for internal combustion buses being utilized for the lower utilized routes, then the electric buses spread their costs over more riders, due to no fault of their own).

    2. If you don’t have pretty heavy use of the wires, then it just doesn’t make sense to string them up. If you have six or eight electric bus routes that merge and run for three miles together through downtown with 30 or 40 buses an hour in each direction during the peak hour, total, hey, good for you, but if you have a single long line with fifteen minute headways, well, not a good candidate. If someone thinks that it would be wonderful to have trolley bus lines all over, and wants to have one trolley line going a long way in each direction, well, no, not a good idea. Much more practical is using trolley bus for a lot of short, very heavily traveled bus lines, particularly if there are hills, all in the same area. If at all possible, you do NOT want to have more than one trolley bus operating garage – remember, you get to string the wires if it is a revenue mile or not.

    3. Talk to your fire department – nothing like trying to put up a ladder to get people out of a high rise building through a maze of bare copper wires at 600-900v with rather high amperage, while you are spraying water all over the place. (Hint: Believe me, the FD gets REAL good at getting the word to the transit operator to shut off the power, or even shutting it off itself, and the transit agency gets pretty good at turning it off quickly.)

    4. Before you start planning to run electric buses down Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena, you might want to check with the Rose Bowl Parade Committee first. (Yes, this did actually come up.)

    5. Keep in mind that these are sorta like old-style, serial-wired Xmas tree lights – one goes out, they all go out – not because they are wired that way, but because, what impacts one, impacts every bus behind it. If you lose power, or a bus gets stuck for any reason, including collisions, or just some clown who decides to double-park (I’ve seen it happen), chances are very good you lose the entire line, and the buses are stuck out there and can’t be moved until the problem is fixed – and you get to send internal combustion engine buses to replace the service and pick up the stranded passengers and tow trucks to get the buses to places where they are at least somewhat out of the way.

    6. The trolley poles are constantly coming off the wire, which means that the bus stops, the operator gets out, walks around to the back, pulls on the ropes to get them back on, and then, one hopes, drives off – assuming, of course, that the smark-alec punk who pulled them off in the first place doesn’t pull them off again as soon as the operator in back in his/her seat. This is also why you are speed limited with electric wire buses, generally to no more than 35 mph, if that, with 45 mph just about the absolute max.

    7. If you are looking at this, make sure you at least look at buses with sufficient self-contained stand-by battery power to move the buses a few miles off the wire. This DOES get around a whole bunch of difficulties, at least to the extent of getting out of emergency situations fairly cleanly, and can be sufficient to get from operating garage to revenue lines, but this doesn’t solve all problems.

    For God sakes, if anyone with a bright idea suggests that you have the local investor-owned electric utility put up the wires and you buy the power from them, so that the cost of the wires paid for through your utility bill each month, spit in their eye. Last time this was suggested in LA, I had to point out that, at the time, the transit agencies could issue bonds at about 5.5% interest, but that this particular utility had a 17.8% rate of return on invested assets that it was REQUIRED to get.

    If you don’t have trolley bus, and someone suggest that it might be a great idea for your community, ask one question: When was the last time some city STARTED trolley bus service? Gee, do you think, just perhaps, there might be a reason for this?

    For the most part, trolley bus service is a great idea whose time has come … and gone. There are still some spots where it has very important advantages and should be retained, and probably even a few where a new installation might be worth considering, but, as a large-scale technology for a lot of cities, I just don’t think so.

    Tom Rubin

  2. Ron Swaren
    October 19, 2006 at 12:00 pm Link

    Maybe it would be cheaper to build a biodiesel plant to provide fuel to diesel buses.

  3. Bob R.
    October 19, 2006 at 12:46 pm Link

    When considering trolleybuses and other modes, if the long-term costs are similar for a given application (such as diesel vs. trolleybus for a short, medium to high ridership line), trolleybus offers one clear advantage: Of all the modes (even rail), it has the quietest operation. If the route takes the bus through areas of mostly residential character, the elimination of engine noise can be a distinct benefit.

    – Bob R.

  4. Lenny Anderson
    October 19, 2006 at 1:50 pm Link

    Maybe the 15 Belmont/23rd Avenue line would be a good candidate for a trolly bus conversion. Short overall length and frequent service, with hills in both segments, dense neighborhoods. Operates cross mall downtown, so mixes with rail. When Streetcar wires and poles first went up, I though “pretty ugly,” but now I hardly notice them. Seattle, SF and Vancouver BC should offer us plenty of real data on the pros and cons.

  5. Frank Dufay
    October 19, 2006 at 2:39 pm Link

    Ray has been advocating for a greater role for public transit for decades, most recently focusing on the need to run MAX under the river..

    Most recently, Chris, Ray was advocating for trolleybuses in place of the streetcar line proposed for inner SE. Cheaper, could be in place faster, and a “fixed” transportation mode. Trollybuses received zero consideration from the folks doing the “alternatives analysis.”

    Sadly, the only alternative looked at besides the streetcar was…doing nothing.

  6. Jason McHuff
    October 19, 2006 at 3:10 pm Link

    Like it or not, the streetcar is not just about transit, it is also about development. People are more willing to build/live near fixed tracks.

    Also, some food for thought can be found in the previous discussions (1 and 2) here on trolleybuses. What I don’t like about them is that they are a whole ‘nother mode to market and maintain. However, they would make the mall a much better place, in addition to being faster than buses powered by other means.

  7. Garlynn
    October 19, 2006 at 3:51 pm Link

    Frank-

    It’s actually too bad that the trolleybus didn’t get studied for the inner eastside loop EIR. I’d be curious to see what the comparison might be. Even with the overhead wires, a trolleybus still behaves more like a bus than a trolley when it comes to the ability to create transit-oriented development… or at least, as far as I can tell, that seems to be the case in San Francisco and other places that still have trolleybuses. Yes, they are quiet… but they’re not trolleys. They’re a bit more herky-jerky than something which runs on rails, and they’re susceptible to potholes. New ones have batteries that do allow them to run off the lines for short periods of time, which is a good thing… but overall, if the purpose is to encourage TOD, they’re probably not the best candidate (though they probably are slightly better than a regular diesel bus).

  8. Erik Halstead
    October 19, 2006 at 8:56 pm Link

    Interesting that the source document, dated from 1994, discussed the open availability of cheap hydroelectric power which would be a benefit to an electric trolleybus system.

    Fast-forward to 2006; the environmentalists are now against the dams (because of impact to fish runs) and are demanding the removal of a number of dam systems. A number of smaller dams are going to be removed within the next few years, and at least one Oregon City hydroelectric plant is completely closed. More and more of our region’s power is purchased on the open market (think: Enron) and generated through coal and gas burning power plants rather than hydro. Our area’s growing population will certainly need more power generation to keep up with demand. Moving mass transit to a electrical-based propulsion system as opposed to petroleum-based propulsion certainly will add to the demand.

    Anyone up for Trojan II? Solar and wind are nice, but the Portland area just doesn’t have enough wind and enough year-round sunshine to successfully generate enough power for a city.

  9. Ron Swaren
    October 19, 2006 at 10:32 pm Link

    “Anyone up for Trojan II”

    No. Not that I believed it was an imminent danger, as I worked there several seasons.
    The Portland area may not have enough wind potential, but Astoria has a lot plus wave potential, too. Maybe not as much as Boardman, but still a lot.

    I think we should downplay atomic energy as soon as possible, especially for application to developing nations. Too much of a security burden. Who you gonna attack with a wind turbine?

  10. Ross Williams
    October 20, 2006 at 6:59 am Link

    Fast-forward to 2006; the environmentalists are now against the dams (because of impact to fish runs) and are demanding the removal of a number of dam systems.

    The dams targeted for removal on the Snake River are primarily navigation structures. They do produce a some electricity, but it isn’t very significant in the context of regional use.

    Our area’s growing population will certainly need more power generation to keep up with demand.

    I don’t think that is necessarily the case. As the price of electricity rises so does the relative value of conservation efforts. There is also the question of whether the heavy industrial users of electricity will remain competitive in a global environment. The shift in manufacturin overseas may free up a lot of electrical capacity for other purposes.

  11. jim karlock
    October 20, 2006 at 9:57 am Link

    Like it or not, the streetcar is not just about transit, it is also about development. People are more willing to build/live near fixed tracks.

    How come we have to give them tax abatements and other goodies to get them to build there?

    Thanks
    JK

  12. Lenny Anderson
    October 20, 2006 at 10:18 am Link

    Tax abatements, etc., buys less than market rate housing and other public amenities in some projects. I would guess that most construction along Streetcar is not getting much in the way of subsidy at this time. Earlier projects no doubt had some public support to buy down risk.
    Streetcar vs Trolly bus? One’s “sexy,” the other isn’t.

  13. j
    October 20, 2006 at 12:46 pm Link

    As the price of electricity rises so does the relative value of conservation efforts. There is also the question of whether the heavy industrial users of electricity will remain competitive in a global environment. The shift in manufacturin overseas may free up a lot of electrical capacity for other purposes. (Ross Williams )
    Goodbye even more family wage jobs.

    Thanks
    JK

  14. Jason McHuff
    October 20, 2006 at 12:55 pm Link

    How come we have to give them tax abatements and other goodies to get them to build there?

    Besides bringing in better amenities, abatements encourage re-use of abandoned and historic buildings as well as polluted land. They get developers to build something different than new suburbs, which aren’t exactly un-subsidised either.

    Moreover, when the abatements expire the city should see a lot more property taxes then if the re-development never happened.

  15. Justin
    October 20, 2006 at 3:32 pm Link

    Interestingly, I just rode a bus yesterday sitting next to a woman who became violently ill due to motion sickness from the rocking of the bus. She apparently had no problem riding the MAX or streetcar, from what she told me at the beginning of our ride…

    This ain’t just academic nonsense when you are covered in the rather nasty juices from fellow riders due to the mechanics of the transport system you are riding upon.

    Emissions, pollution (noise and air), and rider comfort are VERY big issues with transit.

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