Trolleys will be taken out of service for good at 5pm tomorrow under the auspices of a cost cutting measure approved by Council as part of our 2009 deficit fighting measures. Details of the last day of service, including a last run of the vintage Brill trolley, have been posted on the city’s website.
I did not support decommissioning the trolley system when Council voted on it in 2008, and I did not support the accelerated decommissioning either.
Cities around the world are taking a fresh look at electrifying portions of their rubber-tire transit systems. Under the right circumstances they are worth the premium cost. Clearly the way ETS had been operating trolleys for the past decade was not optimal, but the only option that was presented to council was to buy new low-floor buses to replace the aging high-floor models; this would merely have recreated a fundamentally inefficient system featuring improved reliability and accessibility.
Frustratingly, city administration never considered changing some of the other parameters that would affect the cost effectiveness and utility of the system, for instance most effective trolley systems maintain a ratio of around one bus per kilometer of overhead wire.
Vancouver has over 270 trolleys for just over 300km of wire, while Philadelphia has 38 trolley buses running under less than 50km of line. Edmonton was maintaining 127 km of line while proposing to run only 30-40 new buses. Running at a third the efficiency of industry best practice accounts for much of the exaggeration of the alleged cost premium. I argued then and maintain now that more buses or less wire might have yielded a cost effective system.
The key benefits of electrification are substantially lower noise on the street, and no street level emissions, which are both key to nurturing pedestrian friendly streetscapes. Having a trolley line on the street alse gives a higher measure of certainty about continued service, which is positive for businesses and encourages redevelopment.
There are still emissions associated with our electricity (unlike Europe where nuclear is more prevalent, or Vancouver where hydro largely powers the trolley system) and it was said more than once that the tailpipe for electric transit is just an hour west of the city near the coal beds of Lake Wabamun. However, the life of a new trolley bus is 20-25 years, and if our electricity generation is still dominated by conventional coal in 2030 that’s a big problem. I have hope that our electricity blend will shift over this period toward low and no carbon sources. City administration’s case against trolleys assumed no change in the emissions profile of our electricity over time.
Electricity prices have been more stable historically than oil, which of course will power the replacement diesels over their 15-18 year lifespan. I should also note that administration did not allow for the longer projected lifespan of electric propulsion, nor account for the volatility over time of oil prices in preparing their case against electric propulsion.
I generally give the benefit of the doubt to our civil servants, but this is one instance where I have to confess that they clearly started with a firm position against trolleys, and worked backwards to construct an argument around that conclusion.
A thorough and open-minded analysis (a fair fight) might ultimately have convinced me that a trolley system was the wrong fit for Edmonton’s future, but we didn’t get that. This sad failure is why trolley supporters, including a number of us on council, will mourn the decommissioning of this remarkable aspect of Edmonton history.
The only solace I can take is that this now clears the way to focus on developing LRT as the electric element of our transit system. Diesel buses are more flexible in terms of routing as well, compared to a trolley system with fixed routes, so the city is now free to engage in a long overdue redesign of the bus system to move people faster and better feed LRT.