Trolleybuses run on electricity from overhead wires mounted on poles above roads. 50% of the world’s trolleybus systems are located in formerly Soviet states. Extending the count to China, North Korea and ex-Eastern Bloc countries brings the percentage up to 76% (213 out of 282 systems). Trolleybuses were, for long, not a popular topic in Western sustainable mobility discourses. Contemporary public transport oriented policy highlights rail-based electrical transport. This makes it hard to say that trolleybuses feature on the list of “best-practice” solutions. While many European cities used to have trolleybus systems, most were shut down in the 1960s-1970s. Yet in recent years, an increased drive towards electrification of bus fleets brought about a growing interest in trolleybuses as a cost-effective and well established means of in-motion charging of public transport vehicles. Yet Moscow shows opposite tendencies.
In autumn 2020, trolleybuses in Moscow carried their last passengers. Shortly before, in 2013, Moscow had the world’s largest trolleybus system. 83 routes, 600 km of overhead wires, almost 2000 vehicles, educational, maintenance and even production facilities were almost completely destroyed in the course of six years. Many people asked “Why?” but all answers only partly account for what has happened. The text below focuses on arguments from different sides of the debate around the Moscow trolleybus issue.
Pedestrianisation and wire removal
After mass civil protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, urban policies significantly shifted towards pedestrianisation and an increased attention to urban design. The reconstruction of the Gorky Park met a positive response from citizens. Since then, each summer Moscow streets turned into a huge construction site. The regional government’s “Moya Ulitsa” (“My street”) program featured enormous budget lines for widened and re-paved sidewalks, curbside parking, new bus and tram stops, small architectural forms and new street lighting. Overhead wire removal was also included in the list of reconstruction efforts.
When Moscow’s mayor Sergey Sobyanin opened the first reconstructed streets in 2014, citizens noticed that trolleybus overhead wires were missing. The project suggested a modernisation of overhead wires but something went wrong. Pre-existing routes were substituted by diesel buses, others simply cut back due to lacking wire infrastructure. Same year, a leaked letter from the head of Mosgortrans – the municipal public transport operator – to the head of the city transport committee highlighted that available trolleybuses are old and 14 routes should be cancelled due to the absence of vehicles in the nearest future. While the Moscow transport strategy suggested a renovation of the trolleybus fleet, officials claimed that the city administration published numerous proposals but none of three Russian trolleybus manufacturers responded to government procurement offers. Since 2014, a public transport enthusiast has been called the process of trolleybus cancellation a “big trolleybus demolition” (bolshoy trolleybusniy pogrom).
Discussions and civil campaign
In 2016, city authorities announced a new stage of the “Moya Ulitsa” program. Reconstruction plans suggested the cancellation of trolleybus routes in the entire city centre. This news triggered the launch of the “Save trolleybus” public campaign. Local politicians, non-government organizations, experts, journalists as well as citizens took part in action. Issues of economical appraisal, decision-making process and cultural meaning of trolleybus were discussed. However, local officials and affiliated experts tried to avoid participation in this debate. Numerous demonstrations took place. A wide public campaign “Trolleybuses are being annihilated” (“Trolleybus unichtozhayut”) made a lot of efforts to influence the decision-making process. Municipal deputies and local politicians called for a discussion. Experts from Western countries commented on the situation, but to no avail.
As a part of these efforts in April 2016 I organized a round table at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” and invited the head of Mosgortrans and the chair of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) Trolleybus committee to discuss the topic. The official position for cancellation was as follows:
- The average age of trolleybus is nine years. They are simply too old.
- Maintenance takes a lot of time. Trolleybuses are unreliable.
- Electrical equipment is old and requires an enormous budget for the purpose.
- Operating company spends more money on trolleybuses than on buses.
- Trolleybuses are ecologically unfriendly because emissions of electricity production relying on fossil fuels is larger in comparison with diesel bus exhausts.
- Contemporary trolleybus manufacturers are outdated and can’t satisfy the requirements of the Moscow government.
While studies show that the biggest share of trolleybus systems is located in ex-Eastern Bloc countries, some experts highlighted that trolleybus is primarily a Soviet and therefore outdated type of transportation. They tried to support the official view with “scientifically grounded” arguments. They advanced that demolition is an engineering question and all necessary calculation were already been made with the reference to arguments from the head of Mosgortrans. Opposite view were simply considered as “political” and therefore “non-objective”.
After the round table, almost 100 employees of Mosgortrans published an open letter with their analyses of official arguments and rebuttals. Same authors highlighted that all trolleybus-related facilities were closed including the Moscow trolleybus plant that can produce new trolleybuses, as well as the Moscow experimental electrical plant with various accessories for overhead wires and sub-stations. Furthermore, panning department employees were laid off. In other words, Moscow’s trolleybus was not only the biggest network in terms of its technical parameters, but a large system relying on intellectual and engineering knowledge, which a self-sustained trolleybus (and partly tram) infrastructure.
Searching for “true” reasons
In the absence of convincing arguments and public deliberations, numerous explanations emerged to account for the “true” reasons behind. Some claimed, authorities were interested in selling off depots and substations. Others (including myself) highlighted the necessity to satisfy the needs of private transport companies: at the same time Moscow turned to the “European” brutto-approach in contracting with private bus companies. The main idea of that approach is the shift from self-initiatives of private companies to management and control from official entities that suggested the re-distribution of routes between operating companies. My hypothesis was that officials were focused on contract agreements with private companies that include ex-trolleybus routes. Thirdly, experts focused on the fleet renovation process: the Moscow government decided to substitute trolleybuses not only with diesel buses but also by electrical buses. In other words, trolleybus demolition opened up wide perspective for e-bus producers who have a long history of relationships with the Moscow government, but without previous experience in electric traction. Finally, some experts based their position on insights from the city administration that demolition is the “will from above” and the mayor simply hates trolleybuses.
Either way, the demolition process seems strange from an economical and even strategic point of view. The initial version of Moscow transport strategy didn’t feature e-buses, “Moya Ulitsa” and trolleybus demolition. A simple analysis of annual reports shows that officials rewrite the program at least twice a year and change its effectiveness parametres. On the other hand, Mosgortrans does not substitute diesel buses with e-buses, but replaces trolleybuses with electric ones. In other words, an existing electric transport is being replaced with another type of electric transport. How to account for this, knowing that e-buses are currently three times more expensive than a trolleybuses, and require new equipment at terminus stops to charge their batteries.
Today, there are three main charging technologies for e-buses. The first one is long-term overnight charging in a depot. The second one is charging at terminus stops. The third approach is charging during the movement by using overhead wires. Mosgortrans tested all technologies but, for some reason, picked up the second. The Moscow government destroyed an existing 600 km long charging network including its intellectual and engineering facilities, and established another – more expensive and failure-prone one. E-buses were introduced in an experimental mode, lacking expertise on how such type of transportation works in Russian condition regarding weather, reliability, maintenance, battery recycling and safety issues. On the other hand, Moscow is a tremendously rich city. If we consider the budget of Russian federal ministry of transportation, Moscow authorities spend a half of it.
The dead-end of explanations
Many reasons for demolition were formulated in 2016, but today it seems clear that all explanations have a limited explanatory potential. Authorities sold one out of 4 depots. The municipal operating company operates ex-trolleybus routes. Fleet renovation took place but as far as Mosgortrans has more than 6000 diesel buses, it seems clear that electrical new arrivals should replace diesel vehicles first. Empirical observations show that appropriate explanation should focus on something else.
The debate shows that technical and economic arguments on efficiency issues are irrelevant to understand why the system has been destroyed. The Moscow trolleybus case proposes a good introduction to a critical agenda in transportation studies that goes beyond engineering and mathematical approaches . If “rational” arguments do not work anymore – what kind of framework is suitable to explain why the “big trolleybus demolition” in Moscow has taken place?
Egor Muleev works as a researcher in the Mobilities and Migration research group. He is writing a PhD thesis in the framework of the Leibniz junior research group Contentious mobilities through a decolonial lens