New electric trolley buses being road tested here could bring a high-tech sheen to the decades-old trolley system, but their success depends on the performance of a battery that has never been used in a heavy duty trolley.
“This is the laboratory. We’re the guinea pig,” said Harvey Hylton, a retired Air Force electrical engineer and former trolley program manager at the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority. “It’s a great idea and I hope it succeeds, but you’re asking an awful lot out of a battery.”
At stake is whether RTA can reduce dependence on diesel buses and replace the under-performing, rusting ETI trolleys that have plagued the publicly-funded transit system for 17 years.
“My hope is that we’re able to run electric, period,” said Mark Donaghy, RTA executive director. “There are a lot of people in my industry that think the days of the diesel engine are numbered.”
The existing ETI trolleys are nearing the end of their 18-year anticipated lifespan and must be replaced, Donaghy said. The NexGen electric trolley prototypes being tested would enable RTA to run a trolley to the end of its line, drop the poles and run on battery power to nearly any point RTA serves in Montgomery County and part of western Greene County.
A second NexGen being tested uses a diesel engine and a generator rather than a battery to power the trolley off-wire, and is the first of its kind to be used for off-wire operation in the U.S., according to John Andreas, vice president of business development for the NexGen prime contractor, Vossloh Kiepe Inc. of Germany.
RTA is also the first to use the battery version of the NexGen trolley for extended off-wire operation.
Replacing the existing trolleys comes with a high price tag. RTA — one of just five U.S. transit systems still using electric trolley buses — has budgeted $43 million to buy 41 more of the dual-mode trolleys by 2019 if the prototypes being tested pass muster and federal funding can be obtained to cover most of that cost.
The trolleys — which will cost about $1 million — are more than twice as expensive as conventional low-emission diesel buses and about 40 percent more costly than than hybrid diesel/electric buses.
Federal funds would cover up to 80 percent of the purchase price. The local share would come from passenger fares and the 0.5 percent sales tax in Montgomery County.
Dual-mode trolleys are more common in Europe but the Vossloh battery systems used there, as well as those purchased by Seattle and San Francisco, are designed as backup sources that allow the trolley to go at most a few miles to avoid construction and obstacles and at a speed of less than 25 miles per hour.
Donaghy said the NexGen battery can power a fully loaded trolley at full speed for up to 20 miles off wire, although Andreas said its design specifications are for 15 miles. He said Donaghy’s estimate is possible depending on how many people are on the bus and the amount of power being used for heating and air conditioning.
Donaghy disagrees with the notion of RTA as a “guinea pig” for the NexGen trolley’s lithium titanate oxide (LTO) battery, calling LTO a “proven technology (that) has been used in transit for over four years and has a solid record of performance.” He said the LTO offers a faster recharge and is considered to be “greener” than the older technology lithium iron phosphate batteries that are currently installed on loan in the prototypes until the LTO batteries are manufactured.
However, the LTO is so new it wasn’t even included in the original bid specifications for the NexGen. It is used in standard battery-electric buses sold by Proterra of Greenville, S.C., said Ryan Popple, company CEO.
He said battery technology has made huge strides in recent years and costs have dropped, making it financially feasible to build battery-electric buses. About nine transit systems, including Nashville and Louisville, have purchased Proterra’s zero-emissions electric bus, which fast-charges on stations located along bus routes and needs to be recharged every 30 to 50 miles.
Proterra buses cost $600,000 to $800,000, not including the $350,000 fast-charge station, Popple said. They are mostly used on downtown circulator routes, rather than the heavy-duty use that RTA demands of its trolleys, though Popple said some Proterra electric buses log 120 to 180 miles a day.
By comparison, an RTA electric trolley bus typically covers about 200 miles in a day. The NexGen battery continuously charges on the overhead wires, which traverse 124 miles on seven routes.
Even though Donaghy touted the use of the LTO battery in Proterra electric buses, he also said he believes battery-electric buses are not yet a feasible option as a workhorse of a transit system.
“I don’t doubt that someday batteries will achieve 150 or more miles without a charge, but I am not that confident today,” said Donaghy. “I do believe their product is getting good reviews in their limited role.”
Outdated from the start
The tortured path of the ETI trolleys offers clear lessons about the expensive consequences of missteps and bad decisions.
Fifty-seven trolleys were purchased for $550,000 each from a now-defunct company called Electric Trolley Inc. (ETI), the lone bidder. ETI was a private joint venture between SKODA, a Czech Republic company and defense contractor AAI Corp. of Hunt Valley Md. Donaghy said he’s been told that RTA’s bid specifications at the time mandated “proven” — which he said guaranteed old — technology, making the ETI buses outdated from the start.
An eleventh-hour redesign of the bus is blamed for serious structural problems that later developed.
During the testing period of three prototype trolleys, people complained about the location of the handicapped ramp toward the back of the bus, said Gary Robinson, RTA project and infrastructure manager. A decision was made to redesign the trolley to make it wider to better accommodate wheelchairs in the aisle and to move the heavy wheelchair ramp to the front door.
Hylton, who managed the trolley program from 1995 to 2001, said the redesign was badly done and the ramp was too heavy for the front of the bus.
“There were modifications to the frame to make it wider. And things came apart,” he said.
Hylton also believes the frames were damaged by salty moisture during shipment from the Czech Republic, leading to the corrosion now plaguing the trolleys. He and Robinson both said testing was inadequate on the production buses, which began arriving in 1998.
Electrical problems came first. Then a broken cross-road bracket weld was found on one bus and cracks in the same part on 39 others, along with cracked rear main frames on 13 buses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warned that the bus could “catastrophically fail,” and in 2001 ETI recalled the buses and fixed them under warranty. Only seven of the 57 buses purchased from ETI were not defective.
San Francisco, ETI’s only other customer, also had defective trolleys. By 2004, the company was out of business.
Over the years the ETI trolleys have continued to cause problems. The wheelchair ramp frequently breaks. The trolleys were supposed to be dual mode, with enough battery power to detour around obstacles, but that has proven to work only intermittently. Also, RTA agreed to exclusively buy parts from ETI, which initially drove up the costs. Then, after the company dissolved, RTA had trouble finding parts.
On the surface, it would appear RTA is paying a steep price to maintain trolleys. A 2010 RTA study found the ETI trolleys were more expensive per mile for both labor and parts than the diesel buses. The diesel bus also traveled 65 percent more miles between mechanical failures than the ETI trolleys.
But Donaghy said the poor performance of the ETI trolleys in Dayton — and their age — make comparisons problematic. Boston’s modern electric trolleys, for example, go about five times as long between mechanical failures than Dayton’s diesel fleet, he said.
“You have to read (the 2010 study) deeply to understand that trolleys aren’t a terrible idea, but this (ETI) bus is a terrible bus,” Donaghy said.
Cost only one factor
The decision on whether to buy the NexGen trolleys won’t come until late this year.
After agreeing last June to purchase the four prototypes at $1.4 million each, RTA has an option to buy up to 75 more over five years at a cost of about $1 million each, plus 3 percent annual inflationary increases built into the contract.
If RTA bought all 75 the total cost with inflationary increases would be $91.2 million, which Donaghy said would be the largest capital expenditure in RTA history.
By comparison a standard diesel bus costs $440,000 and a hybrid diesel/electric bus costs $600,000.
Joe Suchecki, spokesman for the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, said diesel buses are the least expensive transit bus and newer models pollute less than past models.
“We believe diesel is going to be around for quite some time,” Suchecki said. “It’s still the workhorse of the transportation industry.”
But trolley advocates say cost isn’t the only factor to consider when weighing trolleys versus diesel buses. The trolleys’ lack of carbon emissions and low noise levels make them ideal for an urban environment, the 2010 RTA study noted. The prototypes being tested also are designed to last longer than diesel buses.
There is also the intangible value of trolleys and their unique tie to the city’s history. Trolleys have been in Dayton since 1933 and have a passionate group of supporters, including Hylton who was one of the original members of the local Save Our Trolleys Coalition, formed in the 1980s to fight off an attempt to eliminate the trolley system.
“I’ve always been a trolley nut since I was a little kid,” said Hylton, 84. “That spark on the trolley, that is what caused me probably to become an electrical engineer, that little blue spark as the thing went down the street.”
Some also make financial arguments for keeping the trolleys, including the infrastructure for the 124-mile system, already in place and valued at $96 million.
Having trolleys also makes available federal money that the transit system wouldn’t otherwise get. Known as “fixed guideway” funding and targeting transit systems with rail or trolley lines, the money can be used for all transit operations, not just the trolleys. Last year RTA received $17 million in fixed guideway funding.
So far RTA tests show the battery trolleys performing better than the diesel/generator ones, but adjustments are improving the performance of the latter, said Bill Ingram, chief maintenance officer for RTA. Donaghy emphasized that RTA is under no obligation to buy any more of the NexGens and argued that it is too soon in the testing period — which began in December — to determine if more trolleys should be purchased or which version is preferred.
The debate over trolleys has played out in other cities.
A 2008 study for Edmonton, Alberta, concluded that coal-powered electric plants created higher pollution levels overall than clean diesel or hybrid buses, particularly when factoring in the emissions associated with getting coal out of the ground and preparing it to fuel power plants.
The transit system in Edmonton wound up eliminating its trolleys in favor of diesel/electric hybrids.
But King County Metro, the transit system in Seattle, went in an opposite direction and rejected purchasing diesel or hybrid diesel buses to replace its 159 aging electric trolleys.
King County Metro is now buying New Flyer electric trolleys with a Vossloh Kiepe electrical system for, depending on the size, $900,000 to $1.3 million each. A decision came after a study found the hybrid diesel/electric’s were more costly than trolleys to operate and had higher greenhouse gas emissions and total energy consumption.
Unlike the Midwest, which relies mostly on coal to meet its electric needs, Seattle draws from hydroelectric, nuclear, wind and biomass.
Jim Graebner, chief executive of Lomarado Group, a Denver-based transit consulting company, said he always used the low-emission diesel buses when he ran a transit system in Rhode Island because it was a proven, dependable technology.
“But I think that has gotten near the limits of technology whereas with the electric buses it is still a technology that has a long way to go before it peaks out,” he said.
Graebner also said Donaghy and RTA are turning heads in the industry.
“I think it’s neat to see Dayton in a pioneering sense again,” he said. “I hope, and I think I trust, that this is going to turn out well. I think it could be something that a lot of industry eyes will be on Dayton.”
U.S. Transit Facts - By the numbers
- 7,118 transit systems
- 5 with electric trolley buses
- 0.9 percent of passenger trips are on trolleys
- 0.3 percent of passenger miles traveled are on trolleys
Source: 2012 data from American Public Transportation Association