Metro’s ‘next generation’ of Capitol Hill-friendly electric trolleys ready to roll

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Hill-friendly and relatively clean and quiet, electric trolleys are important workhorses in Seattle’s commute. Starting this week, Metro’s ancient fleet will begin a two-year rollout of replacement trolleys.

The first five of 174 replacement trolley buses go into service Wednesday with the remaining trolleys “phased in over the next two years.”

Metro says the new trolley buses will use up to 30% less electricity than the current fleet “and will significantly reduce operating costs.”

“Electric trolleys are ideal for moving people in dense urban environments, making up 12% of our fleet but carrying 20% of our weekday riders,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in an announcement of the rollout. “And they emit zero emissions. By running trolleys instead of diesel-hybrid buses over the next five years, we are keeping 42,000 metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions out of our air.”

The updated trolleys from manufacturer New Flyer come as bus service improvements paid for by Seattle’s new transportation tax district have hit the streets. Meanwhile, while its “start date is still not fixed,” the First Hill Streetcar should finally begin offering service between Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square… well, soon.

Metro did not announced which routes will be first for the new trolley deployment. UPDATE: From a Metro spokesperson: “For the next three days (Wed.–Fri.) the new trolleys will be assigned to the routes 1,2,3,36, 70. After that, they will rotate.  And over time, we will continue to add additional 40-foot trolley buses to the fleet.”

The county will also introduce three new prototype battery buses in coming months. Thanks to a $4.7 million federal grant, Metro will test the three “40-foot prototype heavy-duty battery-electric buses with fast-charging batteries, manufactured with a composite body by Proterra, Inc.”:

The new 38-seat buses can travel up to 23 miles between charges, and remain on the road up to 24 hours a day. Batteries take 10 minutes or less to charge. The prototype bus is expected to get 15 miles more from an equivalent unit of energy than a diesel-hybrid coach. A battery-charging station has already been set up at the Eastgate Park-and-Ride lot.

Metro says the three prototypes will likely be tested on short routes serving the Eastside and downtown Seattle “to determine whether battery-electric buses can be a future replacement option for Metro.”

The county began making plans to spend the $186 million necessary to replace the more than 25-year-old fleet of trolley buses in 2011. In the meantime, Metro worked to test possible replacements and pounded out a deal to purchase the new trolleys. Metro teamed up with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority to purchase the replacement coaches under the same contract — “a move that ensures both Metro and SFMTA get highly competitive pricing.” More than $120 million in federal grants are part of the final price tag. “The electric trolley system will cost less to operate than Metro’s hybrid fleet, once fuel consumption, maintenance, and grant funding are factored in,” the statement from the county says.

While achieving and surpassing many of the emission goals of the old fleet, the new buses also have new features:

  • The ability to operate off-wire for an estimated three to five miles – a first for our trolley fleet. This feature will allow the trolleys to reliably reroute around collisions and reduce the need to substitute diesel buses during construction.
  • Filtered heating and air conditioning
  • Low floors for easier and faster boarding and exiting
  • An updated system to secure wheelchairs
  • Three doors on larger 60 foot buses and the ability to kneel the full length of the bus
  • The electric trolley buses will use an estimated 20 to 30 percent less energy than our current electric trolleys, and use regenerative braking that puts power back into the energy system.

In a statement, Metro general manager Kevin Desmond further described the slick new rides:

Our customers will find lots of features designed to improve their rides: filtered heating and air conditioning, low floors for easier and faster boarding and exiting, and updated bike racks and systems for securing wheelchairs. To make it easier for passengers to circulate and exit, the new buses have a few less seats and have back doors that riders can open by pressing on them when the bus is stopped.

The new trolleys can even go short distances off-wire. While inside the bus, the driver can disconnect the trolley’s poles from the power lines and use battery power to scoot around obstructions, keeping our riders moving. As we gain experience with this capability and deploy more new trolleys, we’ll have much less need to substitute diesel buses for trolleys to operate around weekend events or construction zones—reducing noise, energy consumption and emissions.

Metro says it has been “extending the life of older buses through refurbishment, but those coaches become outdated and unreliable as their electrical systems and motors wear out,” as many a Capitol Hill bus rider can attest.

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26 thoughts on “Metro’s ‘next generation’ of Capitol Hill-friendly electric trolleys ready to roll

  1. I think all of the new buses that Metro is getting will have the push to open back door system (so no more having to yell for the driver to open it)

  2. They look Fantastic. Now can someone please explain to me what the Seattle Street Car can do that this bus can’t? why did we spend all that money and tear up Broadway for it, when we could’ve just used these with no rails?

    • Because it was funded by Sound Transit, not by the City of Seattle, and the money couldn’t have been reallocated elsewhere?

    • I don’t know if this is all that accurate, and someone will likely chime in with an actual answer, but the first thing that popped into my head when reading your question was actually the computer game, Sim City.

      In Sim City you are given multiple types of mass transit options to build in an effort to alleviate the ever present problem of traffic congestion.

      For awhile bus stops are all you need. But as an area develops, and as your citizens grow more affluent, they are less inclined to use the bus. They’d rather take the subway or the train, but will settle for their own car if neither of those options exist.

      Maybe it’s the same deal here. Maybe we need a street car because many people think of buses as a “poor person thing” or perhaps even just as this special “club” that they’re not sure they’re included in.

      For whatever reason, rail is just more inclusive.

      Slap some rails down and suddenly transit becomes romantic, efficient, and kinda cool.

    • Attract riders who won’t ride the bus but will ride the train. This is especially true of tourists who are fearful of busses but romanticize trains… but it’s also true of affluent locals, too. There’s no amount of social justice screaming that’s going to change that, either… so we might as well do what we can to meet them where they’re at.

    • Can someone please explain to me why, when the streetcar is about to open, people keep asking this question as if it will un-do everything? The money is spent and the thing is built. The horse is dead- get off. Also, see Adam’s answer below: many people just don’t like buses and/or are scared of them. It’s the same answer that’s been said dozens and hundreds of times. Sorry if you don’t like the answer, or if you don’t think it makes sense or is logical or not, it’s true.

      • I think you are drinking the Kool Aid. These things seem a silly waste of a lot of money. If they worked above grade, and didn’t stop at lights, they would attract riders. The way they are now will attract no more people than buses would…at a much lower price.

      • Where’s any evidence whatsoever that affluent people or tourists are afraid to ride buses but will ride streetcars? This is such a straw man. The reason we keep at this issue is: our city council is seriously considering building more rails and wasting more of our money. Some of us would greatly prefer that our tax dollars actually go to something useful.

        It’s great to hear about the ability of the buses to go off line so they can get around accidents, etc. This is the kind of good design choice that can make a better public transportation system. If you’re in a streetcar, on the other hand, and there’s an accident ahead, well, you’ll just wait for it to clear, however long that takes. Unless of course you get off and take the bus – oh wait, if you’re not a bus-o-phobic!

  3. Reply to Andrés:
    Streetcars are cheaper to operate than buses, hold more passengers, last longer than buses and provide a smoother ride for passengers. They also offer at grade access for faster loading/unloading of wheelchairs, something that is hard to achieve with buses.

    • Streetcars are at least twice the cost per mile as a trolley and with the latest improvements to bus standards they basically eliminate any and all advantages streetcars once held. Cost advantages of trolleys are even greater for Seattle since we already have the infrastructure in place. Modern bus and BRT systems are emulating urban rail travel. Streetcars do carry about 80 more people than a traditional articulated bus but even this number is coming down with new bus designs and since streetcars typically don’t run as often more people aren’t transported. New buses are also lower eliminating the platform height advantage streetcars once maintained. I believe some buses today are roll on for wheelchairs with a ramp like a streetcar. Streetcars are typically no quicker (around 7-12 mph in Portland) unless they are implemented like the SLU line where they are separate or in the center of the roadway, not the right lane or only lane. The CapHill/ID line will not have this advantage and will slow other traffic as well as create a huge hazard to cyclists on much of the route. The speed improvements streetcars get credit for are due to other improvements that can be realized with buses as well. The real winners of the streetcar are….surprise, surprise, the commercial property owner and the developers. This is exactly why Vulcan got one installed in SLU. Too many arguments for streetcars don’t include modern bus standards, ignore the existing infrastructure, are pushed by people who fall in love with the technology or the idea like we saw with the Seattle monorail project. I’d be more of a fan of the streetcar if it were to actually be implemented properly but the one day CapHill/ID/Pioneer Square line doesn’t even appear to be installed according to methods known to be successful elsewhere. The ride is certainly smoother on a streetcar but the argument that people make about a streetcar replacing multiple bus routes doesn’t make sense consider the streetcar can only go where the rail is run. I would to see more information on this for sure. I’d also like to see a study that addresses the rides not taken argument as that seems like a strange pro streetcar point. If people are willing to actually walk than get on a bus cause they are afraid or whatever, that seems like another win for buses.

  4. Another question I have after looking at the map of electric trolley routes: what will happen to the electric wires that are currently used by the 43 after it is decommissioned? Will Metro electrify the 48 (or whatever route number it will morph into)?

    • Don’t write the 43’s obituary yet.

      In all likelihood the trolley wire that might be left somewhere that trolley buses no longer run will be left up for a while. You never know if Metro might use it for an emergency reroute.

      • I use 43 everyday to get to/from work in Downtown from East Cap Hill. I also use it to get to/from U-District and Ballard often, even late at night. It’s been so convenient that I wouldn’t know what to do once 43 gets killed.

      • I…want to believe…..

        But I went to one of those open house things Metro had when the changes were announced. The 43 is toast. Metro lives in a world where the moon is made of cheese and the 8 is reliable, so taking that to connect to the 48 or the 49 or LINK is a viable alternative to the 43.

      • Probably the same meeting where they discussed turning the #8 around at Group Health and leaving the entire Central District from MLK to Rainier without any bus service. Great idea.

      • That plan essentially just cut the 8 in two and renumbered the Central District portion. So it would have been a benefit to the CD and Rainier Valley since that bus wouldn’t have been hung up by the Denny part of the 8.

  5. With those low floors, I wonder how they are going to do on those hills with a steep incline, that then cross a flat intersection. I’ve seen semi trucks with those low floors in the trailer scrape on Marion & 2nd, the route the 12 takes…. Be interesting to see.

      • How is that? Do those get their floor high-centered on the curve of the hill? Literally, I saw a Bekin semi with a low floor get high-centered on 2nd & Marion and stuck until a metro supervisor helped push the semi over the incline.

        The current electric buses that use that route don’t have low floors… so was probably thinking more out loud than anything.

  6. They would cause even less pollution if they used the trolleys on the weekend. I don’t get why we can’t have nice, quiet, emission free buses every day.