Trolley bus fleet won't be replaced by electric-battery buses, says TransLink CEO

Dec 23 2019, 2:16 pm

TransLink 2019 is Daily Hive’s six-part, end-of-year series with Kevin Desmond, the public transit authority’s CEO, on the state and future of Metro Vancouver’s public transit system.

Part 2 discusses the future of the electric-trolley bus fleet, given the public transit authority’s long-term plans to transition into an electric-battery bus fleet.


With the advent of electric-battery buses, is there a long-term future for TransLink’s existing system of electric-trolley buses?

While buses that are unfixed to an overhead power supply generally have more maneuverability in traffic conditions, the benefits of replacing the extensive fleet do not outweigh the very significant financial and opportunity costs of doing so, according to TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond.

This has been a matter of consideration for TransLink in recent years, as its current fleet of 262 trolley buses — including 188 40-ft buses and 74 60-ft articulated buses — is now past the midway point of their usable lifespan.

The existing trolleys went into service between 2005 and 2008, and they would need to be replaced by 2027 and 2028 before the growing costs of maintaining the aging fleet become excessive.

But it is not just about the rolling stock: the idea of replacing the trolleys with battery buses would need to address the key issue of an entire upheaval of the fleet’s supporting infrastructure.

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A TransLink trolley bus on Granville Street crossing Robson Street. (Shutterstock)

There are over 370 kms of overhead running wires within the city of Vancouver and portions of western Burnaby, including Metrotown, that serve 13 trolley routes. Many of these routes are amongst the busiest bus routes in the entire region.

And the length of the wire network continues to grow. Wires are currently being installed along West 12th Avenue between Arbutus Street and Cambie Street, as well as portions of Cambie Street and Macdonald Street, for the temporary years-long rerouting of trolley routes that normally run along Broadway starting later in 2020. These works are being performed to allow for the construction of the Millennium Line Broadway Extension.

If the trolleys were to be replaced by battery buses, these wires would have to be dismantled at great cost.

Furthermore, Vancouver Transit Centre — the maintenance and storage facility for the trolleys, located next to the northern foot of the Arthur Laing Bridge — would also have to undergo an expensive revamp of removing the trolley infrastructure.

“Well, why do any of that? There are zero emissions today, they work really well, and everyone is happy with them. I think it makes sense to keep the trolleys and draw our attention to replacing internal combustion engines,” Desmond told Daily Hive Urbanized in an interview.

“The emerging thinking is to do another generation of trolley buses in the middle of the next decade. That frees up the money where our Marpole Transit Centre can design and outfit it with zero-emission base with battery buses right off the bat. It will free up the room for the capital to start retrofitting other bases where we currently have diesel and diesel-hybrid buses.”

TransLink electric-battery bus

TransLink electric-battery bus. (TransLink)

In 2018, the Mayors’ Council approved TransLink’s new direction of a low-carbon fleet strategy that switches the public transit authority’s operational fuels to renewable energy sources by 2050, with interim targets set for 2030 and 2040.

The goal is to reduce the overall system’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, achieved largely by transitioning diesel and diesel-hybrid buses into battery buses.

While the battery technology is proven and will only improve over time as it further matures, there are currently significantly higher upfront costs than conventional technologies.

In September of this year, TransLink launched its first battery buses for regular service, with four battery buses operating on Route 100 between South Vancouver’s Marpole Loop and New Westminster’s SkyTrain 22nd Street Station bus loop.

Each of these battery buses cost approximately $1 million — about twice the cost of a conventional diesel bus — and each charging station at the terminuses are also about $1 million each.

Long-haul, off-wire battery technology for trolleys is emerging as well, but these models are expected to cost even more. The existing trolleys have an on-board battery that only allows for off-wire operation in emergency situations over short distances.

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TransLink’s draft long-term bus fleet renewal plan. Click on the image for an enlarged version of this chart. (TransLink)

Based on a previous TransLink report, the cost of the infrastructure required to support a widespread adoption of battery buses is between $250 million and $750 million, depending on the electrification scenario. This of course does not include the cost of acquiring the buses.

Aside from having zero emissions, the other main benefit of battery buses is the far lower operating costs, with each vehicle’s fuel costs falling by an average of $40,000 annually compared to a conventional diesel bus.

The public transit authority anticipates a fleet transition beginning in 2023 could save $1.4 billion or $1.6 billion in operating costs, resulting in net savings of $655 million or $1.3 billion, respectively, by 2050.

Metro Vancouver’s first trolley route was launched in 1948, prompting an era that saw the end of the region’s streetcars and a replacement with trolleys.

A portion of the previous fleet of high-floor trolleys, acquired in the early 1980s, were sold to a public transit authority of Mendoza in Argentina in the 2000s.

A report on the second phase of TransLink’s low-carbon fleet strategy is set to be finalized early next year.