Deputy mayor: Switch to electric public transport may take longer than 2035

Tallinn tested trolleybuses that can be used with their poles lowered for a time in 2021.
Tallinn tested trolleybuses that can be used with their poles lowered for a time in 2021. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

While Tallinn's plan to achieve fossil fuel free public transport by 2035 remains in force, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the energy crisis require certain concessions and possibly the continued use of diesel buses in the coming years.

The Tallinn City Government is set to decide which forms of public transport and types of vehicles will be prioritized over the coming decade and which guidelines to give and investment promises to make to the city's transport company TLT.

The long-term plan of switching to electricity in place of diesel and gas by 2035 remains in place, while Russia's Ukraine invasion and the energy crisis have the city elders and TLT scratching their heads.

TLT adopted more diesel buses when the price of natural gad skyrocketed and has kept using them since. While its initial aim was to rely on CNG coaches until the 2035 switch, the difficult economic situation has seen the city reevaluate plans.

"The city's goal is to gradually move toward more environmentally friendly public transport alternatives. This stands for gas buses for the transition period, development of electric transport, whether we're talking about tram lines, new trams, trolleybuses or electric coaches. However, we cannot rule out having to update the existing fleet in the interim. In the long run, the relative importance of diesel buses will fall and that of CNG buses grow," Tanel Kiik, deputy mayor in charge of transport, told ERR.

Kiik remarked that municipal development plans that included the goal of quitting fossil fuels by 2035 were drawn up before the war and energy crisis.

"We need to analyze whether switching to electric buses only by 2035 is realistic or whether we should retain some sort of alternative fuel capacity to manage risks. The war has highlighted new risks, also based on Ukraine's experience of how to keep public transport going," Kiik said.

Decisions needed soon

CEO of TLT Kaido Padar said that the company and Tallinn's transport department have put together a number of scenarios for the city to weigh in terms of what developing different modes of transport would require and cost. These plans span ten years during which time Tallinn planned to give up fossil fuels in public transport.

"We drew up plans for relying on trams – if Tallinn wants more trams, what would it cost to expand the fleet, add new tracks and substations. We also calculated what would have to be changed to retain and possibly expand the use of trolleybuses. And finally, we put together plans should trolleybuses disappear, whether we would have electric, diesel or gas-powered buses," Padar said.

The CEO's reluctance to go into more detail regarding the different scenarios and their price is further proof of hitting green targets having become more difficult.

Tanel Kiik said that some decisions are needed this spring, more so as TLT needs to know which course to plot as soon as possible.

The TLT director added that every scenario has its pros and cons. "It would be good to decide in the first six months of the year. The tenders can take up to two years," Kaido Padar said.

Kiik said that while he agrees there is a sense of urgency involved, the city lacks practical knowledge for informed decisions. For example, a decision to replace all trolleybuses and CNG coaches with electric buses is risky because there is no hard data on how electric buses behave in Estonian climate and on Estonian roads, as well as how much it would cost.

"We have briefly tested a few electric buses, while they haven't serviced lines for any extended period of time, which complicates matters. It is one thing to look at data on paper and in spreadsheets, while it is quite another to answer the question of how we could ferry passengers around the city in extreme winter weather and road conditions and what that would cost," Kiik explained.

Looks like a tram, is in fact a bus. The Irizar ieTram bus being trialed on the streets of the capital, February 10-20 inclusive. Source: TLT

Trolleybuses and electric coaches go head-to-head

Tallinn has three options for electric public transport other than trams. Sticking with trolleybuses, expanding their fleet and lines network; replacing trolleybuses with electric coaches; and finally using both trolleybuses and electric buses.

"Trolleybuses are married to their line. Speaking in their favor is that charging is constant and the infrastructure can be used for trams in the future. Trolleybus infrastructure is long-lived and they are cheaper to fix than coaches. Speaking in favor of electric buses is the flexibility they bring to the table," Padar said.

TLT estimates a city bus to last 12 years, a trolleybus 35 years and a tram 50 years.

Use of diesel coaches saves almost €400,000

Winter power outages and running out of natural gas were discussed as realistic possibilities last fall. Kaido Padar said that TLT was ready for both. When the price of CNG skyrocketed, diesel coaches were brought out of storage and helped the company save around €400,000 in fuel costs over the last three months of the year. The city was also ready to replace main electric transport lines with gas and diesel coaches.

It would be cheapest to buy diesel buses. However, this clashes with the city's long-term plans, more so as Tallinn has been designated a Green European Capital this year.

"The cheapest option would be to procure diesel buses and use them for the next 11 years – there is a solid second-hand market, you can always replace them and they are keenly priced. However, looking at the long perspective... this is what we need to discuss," Padar suggested.

TLT currently has 540 buses 350 of which use CNG and the rest are powered by diesel. The city is in the middle of a tender for 15 electric coaches.

"The question is what to procure [for the future] – we should declare the tender this year – if we decide to go off trolleybuses, how many and what type of coaches to replace them with. Alternatively, what to get should trolleybuses stay," Padar remarked.

Tallinn city bus. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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