A Parting Word on Natural Gas

Nearly two decades ago, we lost our trolleybus system in Toronto.  Talking about that fight needs a long post of its own, but in brief, a collection of forces brought about the end of that network:

  • TTC management hated the trolleybuses.  At least part of this arose from their unreliable operation due to years of neglect and disinvestment in the infrastructure.
  • The boffins in the Ministry of Transportation who worked on gee-whiz projects with alternative fuels needed something to keep them occupied and employed.
  • The natural gas industry had an abundance of cheap product desperately looking for a market.
  • An Ontario bus builder wanted to build for the TTC, and an untendered contract for buses with a new propulsion system was just the trick.
  • The TTC Commission couldn’t bring itself to replace quiet, clean trolleybuses with noisy, polluting diesels, but CNG buses were “green” and fit the bill perfectly.
  • The trolleybus network itself was poorly located being mainly in old industrial neighbourhoods that were in decline, and a major restructuring and expansion would be needed to make a new network viable.
  • Goodbye trolleybuses.

We were told among other things that CNG buses would be so much cheaper to operate.  It didn’t turn out that way.  Aside from special infrastructure needs and the cost of a high-speed fuelling station, the natural gas bubble eventually burst and up went the price of fuel, even without road taxes.

For the record:

  • In 2006, the actual cost of CNG to the TTC was $0.6553/cubic metre.  Fuel consumption was 1.3751 cubic metre per mile (yes, some TTC stats are still in miles).  The fuel cost/mile was, therefore, 90.1 cents.
  • In 2007, the anticipated cost of diesel fuel is $0.85604/litre.  Fuel consumption is expected to be 1.0098 litres/mile.  The fuel cost will be 86.4 cents per mile.  (I have used 2007 costs because for part of 2006 the TTC was still getting diesel fuel at a cheaper price from an old supply contract.)
  • The electric fleet is not broken down by mode and of course the majority of power is consumed by the subway.  The anticipated cost of power is $0.11491 per kilowatt-hour.  The power consumption is expected to be 5.7360 khw/mile for a cost/mile of 65.9 cents.

Goodbye CNG buses, and good riddance.

Meanwhile in Vancouver, a new generation of trolleybuses is going through teething problems common to any new equipment, but the future of this mode is secure complete with a brand new garage.

11 thoughts on “A Parting Word on Natural Gas

  1. There really seems to be no point in using CNG buses at all. Especially with the newer Hyrbid buses, which are significantly cheaper to run than diesel buses.
    (Is there any operating cost statistics for the TTC’s Hybrid buses yet, or are they too new?)

    Steve: We have not seen any operating stats for the hybrids yet, but there is a reference in the detailed budget papers to reduced fuel consumption by hybrids offsetting some other increases in consumption.


  2. Then there was the problem of not being able to operate CNG buses into the underground terminals or into stations with serious overhang onto the bus roadbed (I always got nervous when a CNG went under the streetcar wires in the underpass on Queen at Dufferin. Is there a chance in Hel…Toronto that we will ever see trolley buses again, keeping in mind of what you said before of requiring at least 200 buses to make it feasible to convert one garage to trolley bus operation?

    Steve: I doubt very much that we will see trolleybuses here again for two reasons. First, as a city with an established streetcar network, many of the routes that would be prime candidates for bus to trolley conversion are already running with electric vehicles. Second, the question of pollution is much changed from 20 years ago. Diesels are much cleaner than they were, and hybrids are better still. The advantage of trolleybus over some form of diesel-powered bus as far as pollution goes is much less clear-cut now than in 1990.

    Once the hybrids have been operating here for a few years and we have reliable stats on their performance, reliability, maintenance costs, etc., we will be in a better position to make comparisons.


  3. Add in early graves for 75 CNG buses: the first 25 lasted 12 years, 50 lasted barely eight years, and the other 50 were converted to diesel. At least those 50 have some chance of lasting to the typical bus service life. The other 75 only lasted about half the life, making them even more expensive, as the cost couldn’t be spread over 18 years.

    Oh, and the promotional bumph proclaimed that CNG buses would be “much quieter” than diesels. Ask the folks on Dufferin about that.

    I agree, Good Riddance to yet another expensive bit of transit folly.


  4. Back in 1994 when the GRT was still Kitchener Transit, it made a major investment in natural gas. The expectation was that the move would save taxpayers about a million dollars, as we had advantages that Toronto did not — namely, Kitchener Utilities, a city-owned corporation that provided natural gas to area homes. With this vertical monopoly in place, natural gas was sure to succeed.

    Thirteen years later, Grand River Transit is aggressively adding to its fleet in order to increase service throughout Waterloo region. We haven’t bought a new natural gas bus since 1996.

    That says all we need to say about natural gas buses, in my opinion.


  5. Is there anywhere in Toronto that the TTC hasn’t removed the cables? Or have they all been dismantled to make for “beautification” purposes?

    Steve: The overhead is long gone everywhere as well as the power feeders, many of the overhead support poles and at least two of the substations. This is not a question of beautification — the overhead needed a complete overhaul, and leaving it in place, especially in its aged state, would be an ongoing maintenance and safety issue.


  6. Delhi India had truly horrendous pollution. Then a few years ago the city, capital of India, mandated CNG fuel only for all vehicles, to clean up the air pollution. All auto-rickshaws, cars, and most of the transit buses are now CNG. The oppressive pollution is now gone, and the city is very breathable. Plus they have a beautiful new metro system that puts Toronto’s to shame. No corners cut, cheap materials, or poor signage.


    Steve: The point I am trying to make is not that CNG is inherently bad, but that it was introduced in Toronto to provide a market for then surplus gas and other interests that had nothing to do with transit. Diesel technology has come a long way since then, and the anti-pollution benefit of CNG has largely vanished.

    The operative word in your comment about Delhi is “all” — not just transit vehicles but also the hordes of automobiles that spew out pollution at a much higher level than a well-tuned modern bus. Switching Toronto to that model is simply not practical.


  7. I arrived in Toronto in December, 1993 and just missed the chance to ride the trolleybuses.

    When I was little, I rode them in Halifax. It was fun to hear the wires making a tinging noise before a bus came in sight. They stopped running in 1969.

    I did explore a few lines by bicycle. The overhead at Bedford and Davenport was fascinating! A few years later took a rail trip around Canada and the US, making a point to explore any city’s electric transit – including the trolleybuses in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Dayton, Philadelphia, and Boston (Cambridge). It’s encouraging that these cities have retained or even modernized their fleets (most recently, San Francisco and Vancouver).

    At the Archives, I watched a video of the council meeting where Tonks voted against continuing the lease of Edmonton’s trolleybuses. More recently, I asked Howard Moscoe about the possibility of them returning. He replied, “it would be difficult” without elaborating.

    I would be very interested to hear about your experience and thoughts about Toronto’s system.

    Steve: Your request is one of several I have received in this vein, but recounting the history of the trolleybus battles is a major undertaking. Just when I think I can catch my breath, someone announces a new subway expansion program and it pre-occupies me for quite a while .

    By the way, I don’t know if you are a fan of Da Vinci’s Inquest or other series shot in Vancouver. It is quite clear that someone close to all of these series is a trolleybus fan given the number of scenes where one goes by, or is heard passing through overhead switches. It’s almost unnerving when there’s a shot with a diesel bus.


  8. One episode of the Xfiles was shot in what appeared to be a trolleybus graveyard. There seemed to be lots there. It was neat but sad.


  9. So, I’m not from Toronto nor have I ever been there. Though I do have relatives there, I actually just stumbled upon this blog while researching ngvs.

    I’m really sad to hear that the NGV buses Toronto has been using weren’t satisfactory. I understand the relative sadness compared to having electrical trolleys, I’m from San Francisco, originally, and I love the trolley system there. But to switch to gasoline powered vehicles seems like a step backwards, if nothing else because of the fact that the world’s petroleum reserves will be gone within three decades, while methane is a renewable energy source.

    I was rather disturbed to hear that the buses’ life spans were less than 10 years. How did the electrical trolleys compare? What about typical diesel powered buses? Anyone understand why their lifespans were shorter than estimated? Lack of upkeep?

    Just a concerned fellow human…


    The CNG buses suffered from several problems. One was that the bodies were not particularly well-made, and their design was such that major structural overhaul was not viable. The CNG engines were not as reliable as the diesel engines they replaced, and the actual cost, all in, of CNG operation failed to come in below the cost of diesel buses even allowing for the absence of fuel tax on natural gas. There was also the capital cost of garage modifications for safe indoor operation of the buses, and ongoing maintenance costs of the fuelling station.

    Our diesel buses typically last 18 years, and we have some in service that are over 25 years old. This depends on having the capability to undertake heavy overhauls, and on an original product, the GM “New Look” bus, which is inherently suitable for this type of program.

    The main enemy of our trolley bus network was its extreme age. We reinstalled the original electrical equipment in new bus bodies, and that kept the vehicles going, but the power distribution system was falling apart. Moreover, the routes were mainly in areas that once had considerable demand for work trips, but where the industry had moved and with it the very heavy loadings. Retaining trolleybuses would have meant investing in new routes, and that was one more incentive for the TTC to get rid of the mode.

    Be careful in your assumption about the “renewable” nature of methane. The volume needed to power a fleet of buses is substantial, and it has to be produced, transported and stored. All of that consumes energy for a fuel that is much less compact than diesel.

    We also need to be careful not to distort existing production markets by embracing a new fuel. The current rage for bio-diesel is already distorting world corn markets to the point that prices for corn are affecting the livestock industry which uses corn as feed. This may sound curmudgeonly of me, but I believe that the green movement has been conned to support bio-diesel when it is nothing more than a huge subsidy to the corn-growing agribusiness community in the USA.


  10. Thanks for the response. I definitely understand how there is need to balance markets before jumping head first into a new fuel economy.

    I realize that currently in no way are the quantities of methane that we use today renewable, considering the large majority of economically supplied methane is from natural gas fields. But the fact that methane can be produced from the simple reaction of CO2 and H2 (which I realize is also mostly produced from mined hydrocarbons at the moment) allows for the potential to create null-carbon-emission methane.

    And considering another green “rage”… hydrogen fuel. Methane is more stable than H2 and doesn’t leak at the extremely high rates hydrogen does, not to mention current combustion engines can be retrofitted to use methane and/or gasoline, thereby not attempting to abandon the current dominating transportation fuel market.

    In my humble opinion methane is the best alternative fuel to gasoline for these reasons, and being that the world’s petroleum reserves will be gone sooner or later, we might as well focus on replacements now, rather then when we run out and our economy fails because of lack of transportation.


  11. Just stumbled upon this old blog while doing some research about how the drilling for Natural Gas is destroying the water supply, people’s property and livelihood, such as livestock.

    You state that “The current rage for bio-diesel is already distorting world corn markets to the point that prices for corn are affecting the livestock industry which uses corn as feed.” I get it that this blog is a couple of years old, but corn is not used in the production of biodiesel.

    Whew, not even close.


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