Myth vs Reality
Myth vs Reality: Find the facts about trolleybuses below.

Myth: “$60 million can be saved over ten years by replacing trolleys with diesel buses.”

Trolley in Construction Zone

Facts: It will cost between $18 and 23 million to purchase new diesel buses to replace the trolley buses.1 Another $13 million will be required to dismantle the trolley system,2 not including the cost of redesigning streetscapes. These necessary expenditures reduce the claimed savings considerably.

The oft-quoted $60 million--whether accurate or not--is a “cash flow” figure. Basing long term decisions on cash flow figures does not represent wise money management. In this instance, the ten-year cash flow does not take into account differences between trolley and diesel buses that have economic consequences. For example, the life of a new diesel bus is estimated at 18 years, but a new trolley should last 25.3 This means that over a 25 year time frame, one would need to purchase 1. 4 times as many diesels as trolleys to provide the same service. Taking inflation into account, the savings claimed by buying diesel buses instead of trolleys are not as great as they may seem even though the price tag of a new trolley is about twice that of a diesel.

Petroleum prices are unstable. A proper long term visionary approach to transportation must take this into consideration. A doubling of diesel prices from current levels would make trolley buses in Edmonton cheaper to operate than diesel buses, even if electricity prices are also doubled.

Myth: “Trolley service is unreliable, prone to disruptions and shut downs.”

Facts: Reliability is important for good transit service everywhere. If trolley bus systems were inherently unreliable, 360 cities around the world would not be using them. When professionally operated and properly managed, trolley buses are, in fact, recognized as proven and reliable technology.

Edmonton is not subject to frequent electricity supply problems. Loss of power to the entire trolley system would be extremely rare.

Disruptions to trolley service caused by problems with the overhead lines in any trolley system are most often due to:

Poor or improper management of incidents may contribute to the perception that trolleys are less reliable. All of these issues can be satisfactorily addressed.

Diesel bus services in Edmonton can also be subject to delays and disruptions. This is particularly true of routes that operate over the Whitemud Freeway, where rush hour accidents may delay service by up to 45 minutes.

Technological advancements in trolley bus design improve the “flexibility” of trolleys. New trolley buses have equipment that allows them to travel “off wire”. Advances in current collection equipment design mean that new trolley buses can travel at faster speeds through intersections and junctions without losing contact with the overhead wires, reducing the chances of problems.4 Vancouver recently successfully tested such equipment.5

Myth: “Hybrid buses and fuel cells are the way of the future.”

New Trolleybus in Rome, Italy

Facts: Hybrid buses still use diesel fuel and will make transit service vulnerable as petroleum prices rise. Although better than ordinary diesel buses, hybrids do not offer the same level of noise and emissions reduction as trolleys. Experience with hybrids in Europe shows their complexity makes them expensive to maintain.6 Frequent battery replacement is expected. The fuel savings claimed by hybrid manufacturers have not always materialized.7

Given that hybrid buses last only as long as diesel buses, but cost about 1.5 times as much, over a 25 year time frame they could prove a more expensive purchase than new trolley buses.

Fuel cells exhibit very poor energy efficiency, making them an expensive proposition indeed. The amount of energy needed to propel just one fuel cell bus would power five battery electric buses or ten trolley buses.8 Fuel cells will require an abundant and cheap source of hydrogen in order to become viable. None are in sight for the foreseeable future.

Rome, Italy, Merida, Venezuela and Lecce, Italy have recently inaugrated new trolley systems.9

Hybrid buses are essentially diesel buses with an electric transmission. They, too, will be vulnerable to sharp rises in petroleum costs.

Myth: “The emissions from power plants are just as bad as diesel tailpipes.”

Facts: The toxicity of diesel exhaust is a serious concern. The Centre for Science and the Environment estimates that the emissions from just one diesel tailpipe are equivalent in toxicity to those from 24 gasoline tailpipes.10 Health risks are present at very low levels of exposure. Diesel emissions at busy bus stops can be as much as 40 times greater than the average levels found in urban air.11

Power plants release their emissions far outside city limits and from high stacks. Diesel engines spew toxins into urban streets amidst dense population. The health impact of particles and nitrogen oxides from in-street diesel exhaust is more than five times greater than equivalent amounts of these compounds released in rural areas, according to one British study.12

The noise and emissions from diesel engines are of greatest concern where there are large numbers of people and where bus service must operate frequently. These are precisely the conditions that prevail in areas where trolleys operate in Edmonton.

The power emissions from trolley operation can be eliminated entirely by purchasing wind power. The same cannot be achieved with diesel buses.

Myth: “Accessible service can’t be provided with trolley buses.”

Low Floor Trolley Bus

Facts: Low floor trolley buses are available from a Winnipeg bus builder. The city of Vancouver is currently taking an order of 262 of them.

It is not feasible to provide low floor service using diesel buses on trolley routes because this reduces the economic efficiency of the trolley system. The solution is to buy low floor trolley buses. Edmonton could realize savings on the purchase of low floor trolleys if its order can be timed to coincide with the new vehicles being built for Vancouver.

Myth: “Trolley buses are not suitable for winter conditions; in cold weather they need to be replaced with diesel buses.”

Facts: This assertion is clearly false. Despite being known for winters much harsher than Edmonton’s, the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg operate about 1,600 and 800 trolley buses, respectively. The trolleys operate in all weather conditions and are so reliable that they are nicknamed “soldiers of the streets”. Several Austrian and Swiss cities that operate trolley buses also deal with winter conditions. Salzburg, Austria has plans to abandon diesel buses completely in favour of an all electric fleet.13

Myth: “An all-diesel system is inherently better because it is cheaper and simpler.”

Facts: An all-diesel bus system removes some of the complexities of maintaining and operating a mixed fleet. However, this simplification approach ignores some of the most significant benefits associated with trolleys such as low noise, zero tailpipe emissions, and, importantly, long term sustainability.

Dumping all of our refuse in landfill sites would be much simpler and less expensive than managing both garbage collection and a recycling program. However, Edmonton City Council chose to adopt a recycling program because of its benefits. A decision to maintain the diversity trolleys offer our transit system will also show its merit in future years, as petroleum prices rise. Trolley buses provide transportation which does not depend on petroleum fuels and is therefore 100% sustainable over the long-term. Petroleum fuelled vehicles like diesel buses do not offer this sustainability.


1Based on 46 buses @ $400,000 to 500,000 per Booz, Allen, Hamilton Trolley Operations Review-Strategic Alternatives, January 2004.

2Administrative report 2004TS7791: Future Trolley Operations in Edmonton, Mar. 9 2004.

3The City of Edmonton assumes an 18-year life for new diesel buses; new trolley life per Booz Allen Hamilton, Analysis of Options for Electric vs. Diesel or Bimodal Fleet for Miami Valley RTA, Nov. 1991.

4I. Bell, “Why the Trolley Bus?” (Urban Transport International, August 2002)

5Transit News Vancouver, Dec. 2004.

6”La carrière française du Civis de plus en plus compromise” Rail & Transports, Aug. 12, 2004.

7Seattle Post Intelligencer, Dec 13, 2004.

8Calculations by I Bell, TBus Group, per Transport 2000 Canada Western Newsletter, Nov. 2000.

9Trolleybus Magazine, var. issues.

10How Carcinogenic is your Car? (Centre for Science and the Environment May 2005).

11Booz Allen Hamilton, Trolley Operations Review-Strategic Alternatives January 2004.

12“Fuel location effects on the damage costs of transport emissions” (N.J. Eyre, et. al., Journal of Transport Economics and Policy 1997).

13Proceedings of the International Trolleybus Symposium (Salzburg Austria May 13-15, 2004).

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