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Tallinn buys 40 new trolleybuses and considers reopening some lost routes

Trolleybus in Tallinn.
Trolleybus in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The Tallinn municipal government decided to buy 40 battery-powered trolleybuses and upgrade the contact network, after 24 years of replacing trolleybuses with buses. However, there are no plans to revive all nine Tallinn trolleybus routes.

At the turn of the century, Tallinn had nine trolleybus lines, of which four still exist today. Four years ago, ERR reported that Tallinn was planning to phase out trolleybuses.

However, the plans have changed because calculations indicate that keeping the trolleys in service and not replacing them all with electric buses would make the transition to zero-emission public transportation much cheaper (by 2035).

The Tallinn City Council decided on Wednesday that the city-owned Tallinn City Transport AS must buy 40 new battery-powered trolleys and reconstruct the trolleybus infrastructure network.

The plan is to buy 22 long ones, measuring 18 meters, and 18 regular trolleybuses, 12 meters in length. The first new trolleys could arrive in Tallinn at the end of next year or the beginning of the year after next, Vladimir Svet, deputy mayor of Tallinn, told ERR. Svet could not say how much the 40 new trolleys would cost. "Market research shows that a normal-sized battery-powered trolley could cost around €650,000 and an 18-meter trolley around €800,000. We'll have to wait for the tenders to see how high these prices will actually be," he said.

He estimates the cost of the 40 trolleys at around €30 million. The small number of manufacturers in Europe could also drive up the price, Svet said. The new trolleybuses should arrive in Tallinn in the next three to five years. The contact network should be up and running at the same time, he said.

The closure of trolleybus lines started in 2000, when line 8 between Freedom Square (Vabaduse Väljak) and Väike-Õismäe was taken out of service. In 2012, line 2 (Estonia-Mustamäe) was closed; in 2016, lines 6 and 7 (Kaubamaja-Väike-Õismäe and Balti jaam-Väike-Õismäe); and in 2017, line 9 (Mustamäe-Kopli). Buses started to operate on the lines instead.

The last time Tallinn bought new trolleys was ten years ago, Svet said. However, the average age of the trolley fleet is already approaching 20 years. In total, Tallinn currently has 45 trolleys. Svet said that some of the trolleys are so outdated that buses might take their place before the new trolleys arrive.

"The fact is that our trolleys are so old that we need to start upgrading them right away. So I do not even rule out the possibility that while we are waiting for these new battery-powered trolleys, we will have to replace trolleys with buses on some routes in order to ensure that the level of service does not worsen," she said.

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

Trolleybus fits more people and costs less money

By 2035, Tallinn plans to replace diesel and gas buses with trams and electric buses. Since trams can't run everywhere, purchasing 300 electric vehicles to cover the remainder of the lines would be necessary. Svet said that abandoning the trolleys was rather foolish.

"In order to maintain a fleet of electric buses, you need charging capacity at the terminals. We did an analysis of how much capacity we have now and how much we could add without having to make a multi-million-euro investment in the network. These calculations show that at our current capacity, we can keep about 60 electric buses. If we want more than that, we have to start burying a lot of money in connection fees. And to increase the fleet of electric buses from the 30 we will have in the near future to, say, 300, that is a huge investment, a very large part of which will go into electricity, not to mention rolling stock," Svet said.

Also, the new battery trolleys can carry more people than electric buses, so fewer trolleys need to be purchased. And the trolleys last longer, Svet explained. For all these reasons, the city decided to rebuild and expand the trolleybus network.

"As we already have trolleybus infrastructure and experience with trolleybus maintenance, it would be a waste to write it all down the chimney and discard it. We have this infrastructure, and we are expecting it to serve us for decades. If properly maintained, it can last up to 50 years," Svet said.

So, in ten years' time, public transport in Tallinn should consist of trams, electric buses, and trolleybuses.

"Trams will undoubtedly form the backbone of Tallinn's public transportation in the future, and we will steadily expand it. We will undoubtedly have electric buses in the future, and their number will grow. Alongside them, we will partially restore and possibly even expand the trolleybus network," Svet said.

Trolleybus. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The contact network in the city center will disappear over the years

The contact networks on Mustamäe, Sõpruse, and Akadeemia roads will be renovated. However, the overhead lines in the city center will come down.

"We will no longer require a contact network east of the Kristine center. We are not going to remove it in the first place because why throw away what works, but we are not going to invest in it; for example, if Tulika, where the trolleybus currently runs, is to be rebuilt in the future, there will be no need for a contact network there after the reconstruction. In around 10 years, I believe we'll see these contact networks gradually winding down everywhere," Svet explained.

On parts with no overhead lines, the trolley is powered by batteries. He said, the trolley is then recharged by contact lines and can drive 60 kilometers without needing to be recharged.

"If those two black wires in the air are going to ensure that we have emission-free public transportation on your streets, which is aso carrying a lot of people, then it should stay," he said.

In the future, battery-powered trolleybuses will allow trolleybus routes to be extended to places where they are currently unable to go because to a lack of contact networks.

"First, we would rebuild these existing lines, and then we would decide if it was worthwhile to reactivate those lines. I think it was a mistake to shut down the contact network," he said.

"We have a vision of how, with the existing network, we could theoretically restore the route of trolleybus number 9, which used to run along Sõle tänav, without adding new contact lines. I also think that the trolleybus could come back to Paldiski maantee. It's just a question of when the city will have the necessary resources to rebuild that network," Svet said.

Ida-Tallinn, Lasnamäe (except a portion of Vana-Lasnamäe), and Pirita are the only directions that do not currently have tram or trolleybus service. The challenge for Lasnamäe, according to Svet, is connecting the infrastructure required for electric transportation to the city center.

"The question is not whether it is possible to electrify Laagna road; rather, how to electrify it between Laagna road and, say, the Viru Center. We're thinking about it, we're doing the calculations right now, and I believe that by the time we start talking about the implementation of our Mobility Action Plan in the second part of this year, we'll have the first actual plans in place," he said.

Tallinn would prefer the Laagna tram route from Kadriorg to the planned Tallinn hospital, then to the city borders, Svet added.

The city government is requesting money from Tallinn's first supplementary budget in 2024 to purchase battery trolleys and plan the trolleybus network's repair. Tallinn is also considering relocating the trolleybus depot, which is now located on Paldiski maantee, to Kadaka puieste.

Tallinn should get its first modern trams and electric buses this year. The 23 trams will be manufactured at the Pesa plant in Poland, with half arriving in Estonia this year and the other half next year.

Deputy Mayor of Tallinn Vladimir Svet (Center). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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