A jolly hour on the trolley
February 9, 2012 9:46 PM   Subscribe

Seattle is only one of five cities in the United States with a trackless electric trolley bus system. King County Metro operates 159 trolley buses on 14 routes that ply over 70 miles of trolley wire, and travel 2,906,297 miles annually. Last year, Metro found that operating new electric trolleys offered a superior financial scenario to new diesel buses. This is even before considering how much better a trolley performs on Seattle's steep hills, or how much less pollution it creates, being supplied by hydroelectric power. If you want to know a little more about how the system works, see some of the photos posted by a King County bus operator known as VeloBusDriver. Some of these photo sets explain the controls of an ETB, the innards of an ETB—so much cleaner than a diesel but so much more dangerous to poke around in—and aspects of how the trolley wire itself works, including the "special work" necessary for tasks such switching routes or traversing a drawbridge.
posted by grouse (39 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The trolley-buses are pretty cool. I live near two of them - the 7 and 8 lines - and the ride on them is really pretty nice compared to some of the regular lines. (The light rail service is better, but again, rail.)

This is actually pretty interesting, especially to see the differences between the regular buses and the trolley buses. I've wondered how the connections work inside, and this is actually pretty fascinating.

(oh, and despite the fact they're in similar areas, Seattle is not Vancouver.)
posted by mephron at 10:14 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

We're ahead of Vancouver in that our housing market has already burst the bubble. ;)

I like trolley buses, they seem an excellent solution and more flexible than actual tracked trolleys. Electric motors are great for low speed use as they produce maximum torque from rest, exactly when you want it.
posted by maxwelton at 10:18 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad Metro ended up finding in favor of trolley buses. Having lived on the 3 and 4 lines and watching a standard diesel bus struggle up James on the weekend, there's no comparison.

Also, I really like it when they make sparks.
posted by gc at 10:20 PM on February 9, 2012

Some readers might interested in the Metro employees history of the system hidden in that second linked page.

Electric trolley buses are more common in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

A very smart option for a region which long-ago wisely invested in a wealth of hydropower. I always wonder when I see these performance reviews whether anyone is ever sent to visit the more common (presumably more experienced) systems elsewhere in the world for opinions and advice about better options. I HAVEN'T heard of such visits, and that's too bad.
posted by Twang at 10:20 PM on February 9, 2012

or how much less pollution it creates, being supplied by hydroelectric power.

This claim is made so often that the power from hydroelectric dams would seem to be sold many times over.
posted by three blind mice at 10:22 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

^ Seattle's power is 87% hydroelectric (source). Their claim is legitimate. Please refrain from cynically speculating and spreading ignorance.
posted by victory_laser at 10:29 PM on February 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

Mod note: deleted a couple of Vancouver confusion comments
posted by taz (staff) at 10:29 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

grarrrr grarrrr Vancouver vs. Seattle, FIGHT!
posted by thewalrus at 10:33 PM on February 9, 2012

This claim is made so often that the power from hydroelectric dams would seem to be sold many times over.

Thanks to the Pacific DC Intertie, when western WA is asleep the excess power from hydroelectric plants goes to California.

There's also a lot of datacenter construction going on in eastern WA near where the dams are (and you can buy power at $0.025 per kWh, unlimited quantity). So even if you're not anywhere near WA state you might be using a cloud based service that's living in a colo/datacenter in East Wenatchee.
posted by thewalrus at 10:35 PM on February 9, 2012

As far as I can tell, the biggest downside of the trolley buses is that the poles pop off the wires a lot, and the driver has to get out and put them back on again, which blocks traffic and slows everybody down for a minute or so. Not a big deal, really. I guess some people dislike the overhead wires, but I like them -- they add some character to the urban landscape, like the ducts in Brazil.

It's awesome that VeloBusDriver is posting these photos and blogging/tweeting about the job. I hope he doesn't get in trouble for it. There was a driver here in Vancouver who got fired for doing that a few years ago. Hopefully King County Metro will realize this is much better than anything their marketing department is likely to come up with.
posted by twirlip at 10:41 PM on February 9, 2012

This is interesting. I've only ridden Muni trolley buses before (which also run on hydro power).
posted by birdherder at 10:47 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

We have them here in San Francisco, too, of course. They certainly beat out the regular buses as a public transport experience (at least until the boom comes off the wire in a busy intersection at rush hour).
posted by trip and a half at 10:48 PM on February 9, 2012

VeloBusDriver and the King County Metro official Twitter account often send tweets directly to each other, so his web presence (and that of several other bus operators) is well-known in at least some quarters of Metro.
posted by grouse at 10:54 PM on February 9, 2012

The interiors look just like the buses and Straßenbahn here in Heidelberg (Germany). Same upholstery, even.
posted by sklero at 11:03 PM on February 9, 2012

Wires pop off? How weird. I've never seen nor heard of this happening in Zurich or Luzern, where we have these buses as well as tracked trollies.
posted by Goofyy at 11:05 PM on February 9, 2012

Some of the Vancouver trolley bus drivers are... special.

Recently, when attempting a left hand turn onto a main road (and through a junction of trolley lines) he lost connection. Instead of stopping and pulling over, he attempted for two blocks to limp to the station... gave in, and fixed it up.

I still prefer the trolley buses though.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:12 PM on February 9, 2012

I used to "enjoy" it when a car would manage to block several lines with an accident. Really? Of all the places to flip over, you silly car.
posted by planet at 11:28 PM on February 9, 2012

Edmonton operated a large network of electric trolleybuses for almost 70 years, only to dismantle the system just 3 years ago in 2009.

After a catastrophic privatization of their electric grid, the trolleybuses apparently became too expensive to operate. "Diesel is the wave of the future!" twittered the mayor.

There might be something funny in the water up there.
posted by i_have_a_computer at 11:29 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, trolleys perform HORRIBLY in snow on hills. Only an issue once a year but does that ever shut the city down. People living in flat snowy areas, be glad you don't have steep hills and trolley buses.

That seems like an easily fixable engineering problem. In such circumstances, the electric motors' biggest advantage (high torque at low speed) actually becomes an inconvenient, because the wheels lose traction very easily. Some kind of electronic traction control could easily solve the problem. I'm pretty certain car makers have already solved it for hybrid cars.
posted by Skeptic at 1:50 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid, Cincinnati had trolley buses.

Dayton, Ohio still does, the smallest US city that does, and prolly the oldest / longest running such system.

Their trolley buses always looked like conventional ones. The overheads do come off occasionally, but are easily fixed. I've also been on Cleveland's rapid transit (light rail) when the overheads came off. No biggie, back underway in a minute or two.

Ohio gets plenty of snow by the way, and Cincy is pretty hilly.
posted by Herodios at 4:02 AM on February 10, 2012

Still not a real transit system. They might be interesting in theory, but they can be a royal pain to depend on to get to work. I took a Seattle trolley bus to work for about 10 years, and now take a real light rail to work on the east coast. Night and day difference in reliability. No more OMG where is the #*()@*! bus, they are out of traffic for the most part so they can stick to a schedule. And I've never seen one of our light rails lose a wire connection which happened many many times on the buses. I will take real light rail any day given the choice because, you know, I have to actually arrive at work at the end of my trip and I prefer to know that I'm going to get there somewhat on time.

In Seattle, very very few of my friends, even very environmentally conscious ones, would actually ride the buses. Here, everyone takes public transit, even folks who don't care in the least about the whole "better for the environment" aspect. From that perspective, I really think the buses Seattle tries to rely on are kind of a fail.

Dear Seattle, I love you but...if I move back there, I will be driving or biking it again.
posted by lyra4 at 4:12 AM on February 10, 2012

That's cool and all, but man are those wires ugly.
posted by gjc at 4:52 AM on February 10, 2012

Wires pop off? How weird. I've never seen nor heard of this happening in Zurich or Luzern, where we have these buses as well as tracked trollies.

I saw it a couple of times in Tychy. They have these long poles that are too bendy to really get the job done efficiently, and the whole process is kind of comical.
posted by LiteOpera at 5:14 AM on February 10, 2012

the biggest downside of the trolley buses is that the poles pop off the wires a lot

The trackless trolleys go into an underground station at Harvard in Cambridge to pick up and discharge passengers. We were waiting around for our bus home, and one swung around the corner and lost its poles. They immediately sprang up into the ceiling and sprayed everybody on the platform with dirty plaster.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:20 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh how I love trolley buses. When I lived in San Francisco, I was always near enough to a line that I could hear the wire-whine. When I moved to Seattle, I lived on a street with two trolley bus routes (3 and 4!) and it was extremely comforting to hear that whine. I'm just a little too far from the nearest trolley line now (the 7 -- and in any case the I-90/Rainier road noise is pretty loud) but at least I regularly ride a trolley bus line home!

It was funny during the evaluation period (when they were deciding whether to keep trolleys) because a lot of people publicly commented how they thought the wires were "ugly". I found this hilarious because the implication is they thought loud, poison-emitting buses are less ugly. Those "ugly overhead wires" mean you live in one of the few neighborhoods in the country where somebody actually cared enough about the local and global environment to provision a transit system that doesn't give your kids asthma and may even contribute less to global warming. That it may cost less is just a bonus.

Now if we could only get bus priority lanes and signals right ...
posted by R343L at 5:25 AM on February 10, 2012

I had no idea. I commute by car along the 71 and 73 in Cambridge, Mass. Purely from a car driver's perspective, they've been nothing but a nuisance. If we are behind one they tend to take 15 seconds to get through an intersection. If they are first in line and we're second, we'll end up exiting the intersection on a red light, guaranteed. Partly its because they go off the wires often. When forced out of the lanes they need to be in, which are often the wrong lanes (right lane for a turn left, etc.), they almost always pop off. When they brake down and are replaced by diesels the whole system runs much more smoothly.

During the winter the snow plows dig up the tar in the oddly wide roads, and occasionally the rails from the old trolley system can be seen. If these are better than trolleys, and cleaner than diesel, I guess it's a good nuisance. Besides, the sparks they make when they loose the poles is a neat little show. Scares the crap out of tourists too.
posted by jwells at 5:26 AM on February 10, 2012

Here's a photo from 2000 of the Harvard Bus Tunnel backseatpilot is talking about. The wires for the trackless trolley buses are visible at the roof of the tunnel. If you compare that photo to this one from 2010, you can see some more scrapes from coming off the wire, and that the durability of the concrete pavers is suspect.

The curve is to the right and behind the photographer. The tunnel was originally built in 1912, and I don't know if it's been widened since, but it definitly feels like the bus is barely going to make it around the curve each time.

My favorite aspect of the MBTA system is the Silver Line articulated buses, which run in a tunnel with overhead wires for a few stops, then in regular traffic to the airport. At Silver Line Way they decouple from the overhead wires and a diesel engine kicks in, generating electricity to power the same motors that run off the wires.
posted by helicomatic at 5:41 AM on February 10, 2012

Especially spectacular are the one out of 20-30 rides where the guide pops off the high-voltage trolley wire and the bus driver has to re-insert it. That is a somewhat dangerous process and I know a couple of people who have been injured doing it.

You know, I'm not surprised that it is dangerous, but the drivers where I live (when we used to have trolley buses like this) never made it seem like a big deal. They'd grab a long stick, get out of the bus, and poke at the guide arm until it was back in place.
posted by asnider at 6:26 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

On a side note, from examining a 1930s Kroll street map of Seattle, I know that the original trolley buses replaced street car lines, so that the #'s 9, 10 and 14 on Capitol Hill and the #1, 2, 3 and 4 routes on Queen Anne followed pretty much the path of the original tracks. If I recall correctly, the bus numbers for those routes pre-dated the trackless trolleys. In any case, I have seen exposed tracks along the #1 route on Queen Anne Hill and on the # 9's route on Capitol Hill during road work over the years.

(The old #9 went along the path of the #49 to 10th Ave E and E Aloha, and, later, Harvard and Eastlake and then made a loop just before the University Street bridge, while the original #4 went from the top of Queen Anne to downtown and then followed the the # 43's route to the U district to 45th and University Way. One could ride from Queen Anne Avenue to the U district on a trolley and never make a transfer. Those were the days.)
posted by y2karl at 7:19 AM on February 10, 2012

Electric trolley buses are as iconic of Seattle to me as the space needle. I can't imagine the city without them. I know some people hate the wires, but I rather like them. Took some getting used to, but now they feel almost like a sort of ceiling outside and make the streets they run along seem more intimate; they kind of haunt the edges of your perception and act as a sort of demarcation between city and sky.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 7:20 AM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Boston still has a few lines. The buses are ancient, but they still smell way better than the newer diesel buses, and they get cleaned up better since the cleaners notice when they need it.

They ride better.

They're quieter. I love them.
posted by ocschwar at 7:23 AM on February 10, 2012

As a high school kid in Philadelphia, one of our dastardly pranks was to yank the poles off the wires after exiting the bus, forcing everyone to wait while the bus driver cursed at us and reattached them.

Yes, we were little shits. I am super nice to all transit workers now.
posted by orme at 7:42 AM on February 10, 2012

The wikipedia article points out that one the problems with trolley busses is that they can't pass each other. Here in San Francisco, it's so true. On some MUNI lines you will get 4 or 5 busses all in a row. Don Asmussen, a local cartoonist, gave this phenomenon the name Sodo-muni...
posted by njohnson23 at 7:51 AM on February 10, 2012

Still not a real transit system. They might be interesting in theory, but they can be a royal pain to depend on to get to work.

No, they definitely aren't sufficient for a whole transit system, but used in connection with other technologies, they are a good way to cover local trips where a lot of stopping and starting is inevitable. Of course there's also streetcars, which worked great 100 years ago but have largely disappeared for reasons unknown.
posted by mek at 7:57 AM on February 10, 2012

I always loved the electric trolleys in Seattle, they would run into problems during snow storms in that they had to follow the route specifically, so couldn't detour around ice patches and so on (such as this one that slid during the 2008 snow storm in Seattle).

I remember reading about the ground level power systems that they are using in France to prevent using overhead lines in historic districts.

Living in Portland now, I am glad that we have a dedicated light rail infrastructure, even though I am now taking a diesel bus to work more often than not (the plus side is, light rail runs to my office as well, it's just further from my house, but lets me get to work when their are issues with the busses due to icing). I am also excited that they are putting in a dedicated streetcar/lightrail/transit bridge (to become the 13th bridge in PDX).
posted by mrzarquon at 9:31 AM on February 10, 2012

I always loved the electric trolleys in Seattle, they would run into problems during snow storms in that they had to follow the route specifically, so couldn't detour around ice patches and so on (such as this one that slid during the 2008 snow storm in Seattle).

The new electric trolley buses, like the ones in Vancouver, will have emergency batteries which will alleviate some of the worst annoyances of using them. They can reroute around trouble, other buses, and go through regions of wire that are shut down for maintenance. Often on the weekends, Metro has to replace whole routes with diesels because some section of the trolley wire or another is being worked on.
posted by grouse at 10:08 AM on February 10, 2012

I used to commute on the SF Muni version of these--the poles did occasionally accidently pop off the lines but the worst (funniest) was when a new driver forgot she was in a trolly bus (on Chestnut, in the Marina), missed our turn, and drove straight off the wires and coasted into the middle of the intersection. Fortunately it wasn't a particularly busy intersection and a truck came by very soon after (not a Muni service truck--just a random truck with one of those pushing frames on the front) and was able to push the bus back near enough to the lines so she could reconnect them and continue on her way.
posted by agatha_magatha at 11:00 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

We have them here in San Francisco, too

Seattle used to have cable cars. (According to the website created by the guys that once created the Helix underground newspaper.) Back in 1920 a streetcar lost its brakes, jumped its tracks and 70 people were injured. 'Losing the wire' is comparitively minor.
posted by Twang at 12:23 PM on February 10, 2012

Modern trolley buses are multifuel; not only can the run on batteries for reasonable distances, some include diesel engines. So yes, the power takeup can and will pop off the cable, but you don’t have to stop cold and re-seat it right then and there, as you do with Toronto’s streetcars. (During the ’03 blackout a streetcar got caught right under the Degrassi St. overpass on Queen and sat there for a day. A typical trolley bus would have been able to drive off somewhere private to die.)
posted by joeclark at 1:14 PM on February 10, 2012

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