ETB Meeting, Round 3

I attended Transportation Choices Coalition‘s “FRIDAY FORUM: Trolley Buses – What Lies Ahead?” meeting at lunchtime Friday (25 Jun 2010). Christina O’Claire gave basically the same presentation as at the Seattle City Council meeting and Tuesday’s open house (which they said had “huge turnout”), so most of the time was Q-and-A with both Christina and Metro Deputy General Manager Jim Jacobson.

He emphasized that last year’s audit was done very quickly and the main recommendation was to do a full study with wider scope, which they’re beginning now. It sounds like Metro cannot fully spec new buses so they are relying mainly on consultants to get probable pricing information on various technologies including traditional ETBs such as used in Vancouver, Orion series hybrids modified for trolley operation, fuel cells, etc. They will also use consultants to figure out how to include possible carbon taxes, credits for zero emission, and risk assessment for fuel price spikes.

In response to a question, Jim also said that King County Metro is limiting the evaluation to the current trolley system routes, with no new routes and no comparisons to suburban routes. He said direct comparisons are too complex to make; Metro tries various modifications to gearing, transmission, and brakes to get the best performance, so it is not as simple as running a current diesel hybrid on a trolley route.

A few other random notes: Metro already needed to look at low-floor buses on steeper routes since new buses are all low-floor, and they will retain the low-voltage DC trolley power system. They are also quite aware that the evaluation page is mostly about the old fleet, but they don’t have much to put there yet. For the next couple of weeks, King County Metro will continue collecting ideas about scope for their Trolley Bus System Evaluation, and present a plan for approval to the county council in July. If everything goes according to plan, when next year the county council approves the Metro biennial budget for 2012-2013, it will include money for a procurement contract to deliver 50 new 40ft buses in September 2014 and 50 new 40ft and 59 new 59ft buses in September 2015.

7 responses to “ETB Meeting, Round 3”

  1. serial catowner

    Didn’t Michael Jackson do a routine where he appeared to be walking forward but actually moved backward across the stage? Maybe I’ve just seen too much, but I get suspicious about this “Don’t you worry, everything will be alright” approach coupled with the study of everything and “It’s all very complex”.

    I mean, really, fuel cells? Did I miss the part where some other major city started running a fleet of buses on fuel cells?

    And having to use the exact same transmission ratios and brake pads to make a comparison? Dude, that is some mighty fine figuring- but how are you going to apply that microscope to the difference between the sound of a diesel bus and an almost silent electric?

    This all started out as a promise of huge savings- savings large enough to justify scrapping a large sunk investment in overhead wire and substations, even after buying an equivalent number of diesel buses to replace the electrics that are ‘too old’.

    This would be a very good time for KCMetro to think about, and us to demand, big transparency about the figures and assumptions that are being generated. The diesel fuel price they assumed was at least a buck too low. The ETB replacement cost they assumed was probably a quarter of a million bucks too high. And we don’t even know if they included the loss of $11 million in Federal clean-transit subsidy when they calculated an $8 million savings by changing to diesel.

    There’s room for a lot of questions here, and it would be a mistake to not keep the pressure on.

  2. serial catowner

    Well, it’s good to see that a little public outrage and sustained pressure can establish the fact that the so-called ‘audit’ was not, in fact, an audit at all. Because, when the audit came out, it appeared to report that the agency could save $8.7 million a year by switching to diesels and retiring the ETB fleet.

    Now, if that had been a real audit, that $8.7 million in savings would have been net. That, after all, is the purpose of an audit- to look in all the cupboards and under all the rugs and find out what the real state of affairs is, as compared with the rosy picture made possible by selective omission.

    And that was my point- that the savings would have had to be huge, to produce a net saving after scrapping so much sunk investment and so many buses with 5-10 years of life in them, and buying new diesels to replace them.

    So, it turns out this so-called audit could, in fact, only reach certain conclusions, based on what questions they were instructed to ask, and relying on the partial information supplied by the very agency they were supposedly auditing (love the part about Metro supplying some of the figure but not being the ones to add them up!). Frankly, I suspected as much on the first day, when I noticed the ‘auditors’ hadn’t been instructed to look for any possible savings in management- and, very obediently, they didn’t.

  3. serial catowner

    I think you’re kinda missing the point here. The question isn’t what the old buses cost, it’s what new buses would cost. The only reason the cost of the old buses got mixed up in this is because, apparently, Metro took the cost of the old bus and ‘updated’ that cost by using the rate of inflation.

    That, of course, is a totally insane way to do it, partially because the cost of electronic and electrical gear has been falling exponentially for the past 20 years, partly because the new buses are expected to do a lot of things the old buses didn’t, and partly because the Bredas were apparently a small order of buses with high unit-costs.

    And remember the old rule- errors are always cumulative,they don’t just cancel each other out.

    If they wanted a quick, fast and dirty estimate they should have just looked at a few other recent fleet purchases around the world, guessed that the next fleet purchase would be much like the last, and footnoted the uncertainty properly.

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