There are times that the hot air surrounding transit technology forces my hand, and I have to take a stand on what really should be a marginal, non-starter of an issue.
In reviewing possible transit services in the eastern waterfront, one group, the Central Waterfront Neighbourhood Association (CWNA), is advocating not just that we use buses in place of LRT, but that we use hydrogen-fuelled buses. Their presentation material includes a PowerPoint from Ballard Power Systems who have been trying for years to make a go of this technology.
According to a Ballard press release dated October 23, 2006, there are only 36 buses operating worldwide that have, collectively, operated over 1.5-million km of service. Let’s put that in context. In 2005, the TTC bus fleet averaged just under 70,000 km/vehicle, or 2.5-million km for 36 buses. That is over 60% more than the total mileage operated by all of the Ballard buses running worldwide.
Meanwhile, worldwide interest is focussed on hybrid diesel-electric buses on which a diesel generator powers an electric motor through a power storage system. Hundreds of these vehicles are running in many cities, and the TTC already has 90 of its first 150-bus order in service.
There is no question that small-scale trials of hydrogen buses have been undertaken in many places, but it is unclear how this technology will stack up against diesel hybrids, especially considering that far more work is underway to produce hybrid buses that do not require the special fuelling facilities of hydrogen.
The CWNA advances a number of anti-streetcar and pro-hydrogen bus arguments in their comments on the LRT proposals. Although there is a reference to “hybrid and/or hydrogen-powered buses”, only “hydrogen” appears in most of their comments, and of course the Ballard presentation is hydrogen fuel-cell-specific because that’s what Ballard is selling.
One particularly outrageous claim is that a fleet of hydrogen buses could fuel up at the wind-powered station at the CNE where, among other things, hydrogen is produced. There is no mention of the amount of hydrogen needed to run a bus fleet, nor of the question of a storage and fuelling facility to deal with days when the system is becalmed. Moreover, if power from the wind station is used to create hydrogen, this power is not available to feed into the Toronto power grid. One way or another, a hydrogen bus is going to use power that might otherwise have offset fossil fuel requirements for the grid as a whole.
Meanwhile, streetcars (described as “old technology” despite their use worldwide) are charged with
- burning electricity from fossil fuels,
- having unacceptable noise and vibration to the point that they would destroy the experience of visitors, workers and pedestrians along Queen’s Quay and, wait for it,
- would frighten cyclists, pedestrians and babies in strollers.
Possibly, a replacement of motorcars with horse-drawn carriages would have the desired calming effect, although other environmental problems would ensue.
I am particularly galled by the repeated appearance of noise and vibration both in the CWNA’s comments and in some of the official material from the study team. There is no question that the original Harbourfront line is a bad neighbour because the track was built before the TTC learned what quiet streetcar track looked like. The track on Queen’s Quay is corrugated and quite noisy in places until you hit the new track west of Spadina (it is also not particularly good on Spadina north to King which was built at the same time).
The TTC needs to do serious engineering studies of noise and vibration for all transit modes and for different parts of the city where there are variations in track quality, pavement structure and sub-surface water table (wet ground carries vibration and noise far more than dry). We can’t be studying the first round in what will become an LRT network when we put out information that LRT may be too noisy for the neighbours.
Meanwhile, back in Ballard’s home city, Vancouver, TransLink is proud to tell people that it is now replacing its trolleybus fleet with 228 new low-floor trolleybuses. You can go to this link and read about this and other enhancements now in progress. There isn’t a fuel cell bus in sight.