Save the T’s electric trolley buses

Maintain trolley wires for in0-motion charging buses

EARLY IN 1966 I began a new job.  My commute was from Boston to Watertown Square.  I took the Red Line and transferred, weather protected, to the Watertown electric trolley bus.  The MBTA wanted to get rid of trolley buses then.  They still do.  I couldn’t imagine getting rid of anything so good.  I still can’t.

Today nearly everyone wants electric buses. Clean, quiet, fast, flexible, easy to maintain.  What’s not to love?  Electric buses are the future.  Getting to that positive future requires we make the right decisions today.  It became clear at the MBTA hearing on February 15 that their decision to remove trolley electric service and substitute diesel buses may be cast in stone.  Yet their strategy does not hold water.

Mt. Auburn Street is about to be reconstructed.  The MBTA is using that street and utility project as an excuse to abandon all of its electric trolley buses, as well as the overhead wires that power them.  They will do so early this month. This decision by the MBTA will disrupt service for people who use the  trolley buses out of Harvard Station.  This action appears, at the very least, unhelpful to advancing an all-electric future for buses in Greater Boston.  To get to that electric future, we should be getting the most from existing electric service, balance experience and opportunity, and take steps that will provide the greatest benefit to both riders and the MBTA.

Let’s consider what we know and what is at stake.

Because the T’s testing of battery buses has been very disappointing, the MBTA is purchasing new electric hybrid buses  – similar to a hybrid car, the power source is diesel fuel, and the battery is there only to improve efficiency.  These buses should arrive in two years and are a proven technology.  The MBTA is making the right decision for an improved transitional vehicle, for use until battery buses can prove their reliability in cold climates.

The MBTA held a hearing in Cambridge last month to present their plans for the North Cambridge Maintenance Garage and the elimination of all trolley buses and traction power.  At that hearing the MBTA quickly dismissed electric trolley buses. This flies in the face of a solid history of this all-electric bus performing well elsewhere in the United States and around the globe. Some examples:

Contemporary electric trolley buses. All American trolley buses since the last MBTA order have had battery assist allowing them to proceed off-wire.  They have been standard equipment for years in San Francisco and Seattle, and European experience is widespread.

Extended service trolley buses run on electric power while charging in motion from overhead wires, and then run approximately twice as far wireless. Dayton, Ohio, has considerable experience with its extensive network of in-motion charging trolley buses.

The MBTA wants to join the huge pile-up of cities in the United States and across the globe who are aspiring to an all-battery electric bus fleet.  And that could be a delightful future.  Yet it fails to take in to account the liabilities of the design and the spectacular failures to date.  The batteries are very heavy, sufficient to crack the structure of the bus.  Batteries deteriorate over time.  Several cities with large orders for battery electric buses have canceled them after initial deliveries failed to perform.  The five test vehicles that the MBTA has owned since 2018 have not proven reliable.  In an attempt to have sufficient battery power for a day’s run, the MBTA has had to add diesel powered heaters.  And, sadly, the MBTA does not have a good track record of commissioning new vehicles, even those using time-tested technologies.

The MBTA is using the Mt. Auburn reconstruction as their reason to substitute diesel buses for clean electric trolley buses for at least two years, with the hope that the battery electric buses will prove to be a reliable technology, and that they will be able to have them running reliably in two years.  They further hope that these new buses will not be just standard battery electric buses  but that they will meet the additional requirements of left-hand doors for loading in the Harvard Square tunnel, use electric instead of diesel-powered heaters, and be ready in two years, along with a repurposed maintenance facility to support the battery buses.

That’s quite a gamble.  At risk is reliable service for riders, and the ability to meet the Commonwealth’s environmental goals.

There are strategies using existing technology that are far more likely to succeed.  They are also likely to save money and not add air pollution in any neighborhood.   The first step is not to decommission the trolley bus service now.  The current plan sets in motion a series of events that all increase pollution and temporary (they say) additional use of diesel power. Perhaps the worst aspect of the current plan is this : If the MBTA follows through on its plan to eliminate the existing 28 trolley buses, the bus fleet will be down by that number and other bus routes will suffer.

There’s a better choice, and the good news is that the T has already shown it can do it.  The MBTA’s own successful reconstruction of Huron Avenue and Trapelo Road while maintaining catenary power is the obvious precedent.  And, on Trapelo Road, highway dollars were used to rebuild the catenary.  Considerable flexibility in construction work could be achieved by a temporary loan of electric trolley buses from a sister agency.  To provide even better data on improved service, a loan of extended service trolley buses from Dayton, Ohio, would be a testing ground for the expansion of all-electric service to additional routes now using diesel buses.

Meet the Author

Kenneth Kruckemeyer

Partner, Strategies for Cities
“Traction-power” has come a long way since I rode the Watertown bus in 1966.  Back then, the MBTA knew that it delayed service when the poles went off the wires.  But that problem has been solved years ago elsewhere, and the MBTA can still catch up.  Now is the chance for the MBTA to lead us into the future of electric power.  Maintaining the trolley wires for in-motion charging buses is a cost-effective strategy to realize more reliable and less-polluting public transportation in Boston.

Ken Kruckemeyer is a transportation strategist who lives in Boston and works internationally.  He was project manager for the design of the Southwest Corridor rail transit and park construction from 1973 to 1982, and associate commissioner for highway engineering at the Massachusetts Department of Public Works from 1983 to 1991.