Audit of Metro Trolley Bus Audit

When an audit was released that listed Seattle’s electric trolley buses (ETB’s) as more expensive per year than a hybrid bus replacement, I was amazed. Although the benefits of ETB’s are many, I’ve considered cost efficiency a large benefit. As the report did not list sources for its data, I took the next step of asking the auditor to view the source data. I was e-mailed two spreadsheets with almost all of the information I wanted.

Observations from the audit:

1. The main source of the cost difference is that the ETB’s are claimed to cost twice that of hybrid buses. I can imagine this if they bought just one, since it’s not an off-the-shelf product. But they’d be buying close to 200 – there has to be economies of scale there, and the components of an ETB have to be cheaper than a hybrid.

2. Hybrid fuel efficiency was listed at 5 mpg. This is in direct conflict with Metro statements in the past of observing 3.8 mpg.

3. “Engine overhaul” is listed at 6.7x as frequent for ETB’s vs. hybrids. This just can’t be right, as ETB’s don’t have engines. If they’re talking about the electric motors, these last a long time and shouldn’t cost the same as a engine overhaul.

4. Overall, operating costs are much cheaper for ETBs than diesels or hybrids. It’s really the initial cost of the buses that seems to drive up the price.

I am following up with a list of questions to the auditor, and will report back when I get a response.

[update] The new bus costs and “engine overhaul” data came from Metro. It’s almost as if Metro is trying to kill ETBs (tries to feign shock).

The scheduling spreadsheet also came in. It’s too dense of calculations for me to follow (without a paycheck for such things, that is).

Layover/service ratios appear to be much higher in trolley buses. The auditor’s explanation for this is that they can’t pass each other and they lack flexibility. But flexibility doesn’t mean that they can’t change routes (though this would help in case of an accident), but that they can’t pull double service for two routes.

My comments regarding flexibility:

1. Anecdotally, the reason passing is a large issue is wheelchair loading. The trolleys don’t have a kneeling ability, which can make a wheelchair stop take a long time. Combine a few such stops and you get a line of trolleys waiting for the one in front. If this is costing so much money, wouldn’t the obvious solution is to design in a kneeling ability into the next batch of trolleys?

2. If there would really be an efficiency gained by adding more routes together, couldn’t we just add more wire to create these routes? Why tear out a system that could in all other ways be much more efficient than hybrids? Go all the way and make as many routes electric as you’d need to remove routing inefficiencies. [/update]

17 responses to “Audit of Metro Trolley Bus Audit”

  1. gwerner

    I do not understand something. Metro only uses the hybrid capabilities in the tunnel. So are they going to start running on electricity downtown with the hybrids? or what?

  2. joshuadf

    Who did the audit?

  3. serial catowner

    Considering that a hybrid bus is an electric bus that also has a diesel engine, generator, and batteries, it’s hard to see how that could be cheaper than the straight electric. In fact, it’s totally unbelievable.

    The same thing goes for the engine overhaul. The electric motors on a hybrid should last abut as long as on a straight electric (unless you’re simply not using them) and in addition, you have the diesel engine to maintain. What they’re doing here is an apple-to-oranges comparison of “number of overhauls” when the real question would be the costs of the maintenance per mile, or service hour.

    It does make you wonder if any f the “real reporters” in this town bothered to look under the covers here. It didn’t take Matt long to find some very questionable stuff.

  4. mSkehan

    Could you post the 2 page spreadsheet file? or just email it to me at
    I find the results implausible at best. Electric motors last a very long time indeed. The new gillig ETB’s used the old motors from the 20 year old 900’s for that very reason.
    The Breda 20 year old electric motors are still doing just fine. Sure, they need cleaning, bearings and re-dipping from time to time, and maybe a rewind, but they just keep going, and going, and ….
    If Metro really wants to ‘get rid of the ETB’s’, and fed the auditors trumped up data, then maybe an independant investigation of the audit is needed.

  5. Matt the Engineer

    King County auditors hired a few firms for the analysis. Booz Allen Hamilton did most of the ETB analysis, and Nelson Nygaard ran the scheduling analysis.

  6. Matt the Engineer

    I’ve forwarded on all of my correspondence to date. I’d love to get an insider’s opinion.

  7. mSkehan

    TO UPDATE: More BS to the flexability issue. Sure the trollies have to generally run in single file, on a fixed wire route, but don’t use the handicapped as a scapegoat for replacing ETB’s with diesels. Low floor, kneeling buses are more efficient for loading/unloading. Get ’em next time.
    Passing wire is pretty cheap. I used to encourage my 3rd Ave wheelchair riders to let me know before 3/Univ so I could use the siding, letting others go around. Battery packs could allow the trailing trollies just enough power to go around stuck buses, using the old Breda style automatic re-wiring pans to keep the driver from having to go off the bus at certain locations.
    In short, the current system is not the only way of doing things.

  8. serial catowner

    This is all starting to look mighty fishy. Really appreciate what Matt is doing here, going directly to the sources.

    Seems that for operational costs they’re looking at the worst buses in the system, but for replacement costs they’re looking at what would be the best buses in the system.

    It would be interesting to know what the costs were, in a recent fleet purchase of the best ETBs available, by some city. I’m thinking these would probably have some battery capability and be low-floor, in keeping with other modern buses.

  9. mSkehan

    See what you’ve started. IF the council is foolish enough to accept the auditors ETB results, and allow Metro to program them for elimination, think of all the scrutiny on ETB v. Hybrid comparisions would come out of the woodwork. Messy!

  10. Bernie

    Man/Neoplan Electroliner:

    Boston is using dual mode buses on their Silver Line. MAN made them for Boston about five years ago (I thought Seattle had some of these back in the old “bus tunnel” days but I seem to be the only person in the world that thinks so.). New Flyer also does dual mode buses if the route flexibility is really important.

    The only advantage I see to the hybrids is regenerative braking. They’re really not a full hybrid like a Prius where the electric motors asist the fossil fuel engine when more power is required. When they were forced out of the tunnel during construction of Link Metro paid to have HUSH mode disabled. Although I still can’t understand why it wouldn’t be desirable in stop and go rush hour traffic on the surface. They do have a first rate emisions system but that’s not specific to it being a hybrid. In fact all new diesel buses should have it.

  11. Anandakos

    Someone needs to tell Metro about Market Street. Before the street was narrowed there were two sets of ETB wires and the streetcar wire. There were islands for the streetcars next to the center lane (they’re still there) and islands between the outer and middle lanes for the middle lane buses. Essentially all three of the lanes in each direction had dedicated transit infrastructure. The same sort of thing could happen for Third Avenue.

    Or, have different routes stop at different stops and have the wires cross.

    There are four general destination regions for ETB’s on Third Avenue, two for southbound and two for northbound routes. So either splitting the stops and having two sets of wires criss-crossing, or just saying “sayonara” to the cars on third and building islands would pretty much eliminate the rows of stopped ETB’s. And of course, get kneeling coaches next time.

  12. jon999999

    thats a great idea. 3rd ave should be like market with island boarding in addition to curb boarding.

  13. mSkehan

    Here’s a link to an extensive Pro-Trolley study done in 2001. It’s pretty dated, but the arguements worth looking over and probably still valid today. Nice Graphics too.

  14. carl

    I know that the new Vancouver ETB’s have off-wire capability via a battery – I think San Fran has the same. Are the new Vancouver buses low floor? If so, that should address much of the handicapped access. If not, does any supplier have one? If we are able to order based on the Vancouver order, then it should be relatively off-the-shelf and if our order is big enough, there just can’t be such a high cost premium. A hybrid has much of the same electric gear, plus it has a diesel motor and batteries. Hard to believe that it is any cheaper.

    A pure ETB must be cheaper to maintain than a hybrid.

  15. Mad Park

    I believe there was a Neoplan articulated dual mode demonstrator coach here in the mid 1980s before the Bredas were ordered, and also a Renault dual mode which I rode on several times.

  16. kloudon

    What incentive does metro have to kill electric trolley buses? I agree that the audit seems fishy, but is there any reason for this new pro-hybrid bias?

  17. serial catowner

    It’s called an “institutional bias”. The electric buses require different parts, different buses, different skills, and a different source of energy. To some parts of the institution, this will always look like an expensive side-track.

    This is exceptionally true in America, which during the 20th century usually agreed that it might be the stupid way to do something, but that would be outweighed by the low cost, ease in finding parts, pool of labor able to perform the task, etc.

    Throw in the fact that the electric trolley buses only run in Seattle, and you can see where KCMetro might ‘naturally’ go with all this.

    Just as simplicity was an evolutionary dead-end for the American car, so it is with transit. All the great cities have multiple layers and modes of transit.