Trolleybuses in Seattle

Seattle trolleybus system

New Flyer Xcelsior XT40 trolleybus on route 36 in Seattle's Chinatown-International District.
Locale Seattle, Washington, United States
Open April 28, 1940
Status Operating
Routes 15
Operator(s) 1940–1972: Seattle Transit System
1973–1994: Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle
1994–present: King County Metro
Electrification 700 V DC, overhead wire[1]
Depot(s) Atlantic Base

174 buses:

  • 110 New Flyer Xcelsior XT40
  • 64 New Flyer Xcelsior XT60
Route length 68 miles (109 km)[2]
Passengers (2015) 18,766,900[3]Decrease 9.7%
Website Metro online

The Seattle trolleybus system forms part of the public transportation network in the city of Seattle, Washington, operated by King County Metro. Originally opened on April 28, 1940,[4] the network consists of 15 routes, with 159 trolleybuses operating on 68 miles (109 km) of two-way overhead wires.[2] As of spring 2016, the system carries riders on an average of 73,200 trips per weekday,[5] comprising about 18 percent of King County Metro’s total daily ridership.

Of the five trolleybus systems currently operating in the U.S., the Seattle system is the second largest (by ridership and fleet size), after the San Francisco system.[5]


From tracks to tires

Twin Coach trolleybus operating in Downtown Seattle on route 2 to West Queen Anne in 1953

The first trolleybus to operate on Seattle's streets was in 1937. It was brought to the city for a demonstration to gain public support for a plan to replace the debt-ridden streetcar and cable car system with a "trackless trolley" system. The demonstration was a success, but still reeling from the impacts of the Great Depression, Seattle voters rejected the plan.[6]

In 1939, Seattle received a federal loan that allowed the city to retire the debts from the streetcar and cable car system. Management of system was turned over to an independent commission and renamed the Seattle Transit System. The commission immediately began construction on overhead wire and ordered 235 new trolleybuses, the first of which started arriving in March 1940.[7]:1-1 :2–3 The first trolleybus went into revenue service April 28, 1940, on Route 13[6] which ran along 19th Avenue in Capitol Hill[8] (which is still served by trolleybuses today on route 12). The system expanded again during World War II, when the Office of Defense Transportation gave Seattle more trolleybuses to meet increased wartime transportation demands, bringing the fleet to 307 coaches. Ridership reached an all-time high 130 million riders in 1944.[6] After the war, ridership on the trolleybus system declined as many American families began purchasing automobiles.

An uncertain future

The city's aging trolleybuses were spiffed up, and the overhead wire expanded in 1962 to serve the World's Fair, but citywide the Seattle Transit System was increasingly abandoning the trolley routes. One year later in 1963, the commission retired 175 trolleybuses and tore down the overhead wire in the north end of the city and West Seattle. Citizens protested the abandonment of the trolley routes with an initiative to voters in 1964, which failed at the polls. By the end of the 1960s, the trolleybus system had been reduced to just 59 coaches operating on 30 miles of overhead wire. Seattle Transit System management defended the move claiming cost savings from using diesel-powered buses, the high cost of electrifying new routes and the lack of any new trolley buses on the market. Under fire from the public, the commission ordered an independent study that concluded that trolley buses perform better than diesel powered buses on Seattle's hills and that operating costs were comparable (except for overhead wire maintenance).[9]

By 1970 the Seattle Transit System was facing mounting financial problems, leading voters to eliminate the commission and turn over operation of the system to the city. Voters spoke once again in 1972 when they approved the merger of the now city-owned Seattle Transit System and the privately held Metropolitan Transit Corporation into a single, countywide transit system under the auspices of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (better known as Metro).[9]

Rebirth of the trolleybus system

AM General trolleybus on Route 10 in Downtown Seattle in 1986.

The new Metro Transit began operation on January 1, 1973, and immediately began working on a plan to rehabilitate and expand Seattle's trolleybus network. On January 21, 1978, the system was shut down and while passengers rode diesel-powered coaches, crews began installing new overhead wire, switches, and a new power distribution system. During this time Metro also placed an order for 109 AM General trolleys, the first new trolleybuses for the city since the 1940s. The first routes were back in trolley service on September 15, 1979. Over the next two years, more routes were placed back into service as construction was completed and new coaches delivered. By the summer of 1981, the entire trolley system was back up and running.[9]

As the Metro retired the 1940s trolleybuses, a group of its employees founded the Metro Employees Historic Vehicle Association to preserve, restore and operate some of the vintage coaches. In the years since the group has added additional trolley and motor buses to the historic fleet.[9]

MAN articulated trolleybus on route 43 in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2003.

Sixty-foot-long articulated trolleybuses were added to the fleet in 1986–87. The 46 coaches, designed by MAN of Germany and built at a North Carolina MAN plant,[10] were assigned to the busy routes 7 and 43,[9] equivalent to present-day routes 7, 49, 43 and 44 (before a 1993 splitting of route 43 into routes 43 and 44, and a 2005 splitting of route 7 into routes 7 and 49), all of which continue to use articulated trolleybuses today. These were the first articulated trolleybuses in North America, other than single experimental vehicles or manufacturer demonstrators on loan,[11] and they began to enter service in April 1987.[12]

The construction of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel under 3rd Avenue beginning in 1986 forced many of the trolleybus routes to be rerouted to 1st Avenue for several years.[13] Once construction was finished, the trolleybuses returned to Third Avenue and the tunnel opened on September 15, 1990. The tunnel introduced the dual-mode Breda DuoBus 350 (ADPB 350) coaches that operated on overhead wire underground and diesel on the surface.

The Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle was disbanded in 1994 after the public voted to merge it with the King County government. After the merger, Metro Transit became a division in King County's Department of Transportation.[9]

In September 1997, King County Metro expanded the trolleybus system, electrifying Route 70 between downtown and the University District via Eastlake Avenue E.[9] The $19 million project, primarily funded by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration, was the first modern expansion of trolley wire (excluding the downtown bus tunnel) and incorporated public art as required by city ordinances.[14]

A Gillig Phantom trolleybus on
route 4 in downtown, August 2005.

Between 2001 and 2003, Metro purchased 100 Gillig Phantom coaches to replace the AM General trolleys. These coaches were delivered as "gliders," meaning that while they looked complete from the outside, internally the coach lacked a propulsion system. Metro removed the motors, propulsion controls and other components from the AM General trolleys, sent them Alstom to be refurbished and then reinstalled them into the new Gillig bodies along with new fiberglass trolley poles from Vossloh Kiepe.[15] The repurposing of the propulsion system from the AM General trolleybuses saved $200,000 per coach, totaling $20 million for the entire fleet.[16]

A Breda trolleybus, formerly a dual-mode bus, on Virginia Street at 5th Avenue.

After the Breda coaches used in the transit tunnel were replaced by hybrid electric buses, Metro converted 59 coaches into electric-only trolleybuses between 2004 and 2007. As a part of the conversion, Metro removed the diesel motors from the coaches and installed new Vossloh-Kiepe current collection equipment, new interior upholstery, a new driver's compartment, and new LED destination signs. These converted Breda coaches replaced the aging MAN articulated trolleybuses.

The unique fleet of converted Breda coaches and Gillig coaches with recycled 1979 propulsion systems saved money for Metro in the early 2000s, but after a decade on the streets of Seattle the buses became less reliable and more expensive to maintain.[16] By the end of the decade, Metro started to look at purchasing an all-new trolley fleet. That plan came into question as the a nationwide economic downturn caused a steep and prolonged drop in the sales tax revenues that Metro used to fund its operations. As part of an effort to cut costs across the agency, a 2009 King County Auditor's Office report recommended replacing the trolleybuses with hybrid diesel-electric coaches. The audit concluded that electric trolley fleet costs $31.2 million a year to own and operate while the hybrids would cost $22.6 million per year, a savings of $8.7 million per year.[17] The auditor acknowledged that the report did not consider the value of the overhead wire or social and environmental considerations, such as increased tailpipe emissions or increased noise.[18]

Recommitting to the trolleybus system

A 2011 evaluation of the trolleybus system disproved the audit's findings on the trolleybus system. The report found that the 2009 audit did not consider that a longer life-span could be expected for new trolleybuses (15 years) compared to hybrid diesel-electric buses (12 years) and did not take into account that the Federal Transit Administration provides fixed guideway funding for the overhead trolley wire. The report concluded that the annualized life-cycle cost for each trolleybus is $11.8 million per year, compared to $15.5 million per year for a hybrid diesel-electric coach, a savings of $3.7 million per year.[7]:1–4

After the results of the evaluation, Metro placed an order in June 2013 with New Flyer for 141 Xcelsior trolleybuses to replace the Gillig and Breda trolleybuses.[16] The Xcelsior XT40 & XT60 are the first trolleybuses in King County Metro's fleet to have a low floor design, a wheelchair ramp (instead of a lift), air conditioning and an auxiliary power unit (that allow buses to operate off-wire for at least 3 miles).[19] Metro says that the New Flyer buses use 25 to 30 percent less energy than the electric trolley buses they replaced, partly because of a regenerative braking system will allow coaches to capture the energy generated during braking and feed it back into the overhead wires.[16] The Xcelsior trolleybuses have a distinct purple and yellow livery, that distinguish them from Metro's hybrid diesel-electric and diesel-powered buses.[20]

The initial order was for 86 of the 40-foot coaches (model XT40) and 55 of the 60-foot, articulated coaches (model XT60).[21] The order would have decreased the total number of trolleybuses in the fleet by 18 coaches since at the time the order was placed, Metro was planning to cut service (as a part of the cost-saving measures amid the economic downturn). Instead, the agency ended up expanding service after Seattle voters approved a transportation benefit district. As a result, the order was increased to 110 model XT40 buses and 64 model XT60 buses in early 2015.

Two prototype Xcelsior XT40 trolleybuses (#4300 & 4301) were delivered in October 2014[22] for evaluation and testing and the first Xcelsior XT40 coaches entered service on August 19, 2015,[23] followed by the first Xcelsior XT60 on January 29, 2016.

Future expansion

In recent years, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and King County Metro have presented proposals to expand trolleybus service throughout Seattle by building new wire.

The largest project currently underway is along 23rd Avenue through the Central District. As part of a project to improve the arterial, SDOT is adding new, stronger streetlight poles that will be capable of supporting the weight of trolley wire. The new poles will enable the electrification of route 48, which runs on 23rd Avenue through the Central District and has two segments without wires totaling 1.7 miles (2.7 km), the rest shared with other existing trolleybus routes.[24][25] SDOT expects to electrify route 48 in 2017.[26]

King County Metro recently installed a new section of trolley wire near Seattle Pacific University. This section of wire will allow Routes 3 and 4 to extend from North Queen Anne to SPU, allowing the routes to serve a common layover with Route 13 and provide better service to the campus. The extension is expected to go into service in March 2017.[27]

The Move Seattle ballot measure approved by voters in November 2015 includes a planned expansion of the RapidRide system. Five of the seven future RapidRide corridors are proposed to use electric trolleybus technology, utilizing the existing network of trolley wire and in some cases expanding it:[28]

SDOT has also identified several possible future trolley wire expansions in its Transit Master Plan, including two key projects: electrifying Denny Way between Uptown and Olive Way (which would allow a portion of busy Route 8 to operate with trolleybuses) and electrifying Yesler between 2nd and 9th Avenues, and on 9th Avenue from Yesler to Jefferson (which would allow Routes 3 and 4 to travel on a less congested path between Downtown and Harborview Medical Center).[29]


As of March 2016, 15 trolleybus routes operate in Seattle. In the following table, routes are ordered by number, principal streets travelled on are italicized and major destinations and neighborhoods are listed.

Route No. Off-Peak Sat Sun North or West Terminal Via South or East Terminal Continues as
1 Yes Yes Yes Kinnear
(West Queen Anne)
Kinnear Park, Seattle Center West (Uptown), Belltown Downtown Seattle 14
2 Yes Yes Yes West Queen Anne Queen Anne Ave N, Seattle Center West (Uptown), Belltown, Downtown Seattle, First Hill, E Union St, Central District, Madrona Madrona Park 13 (Alternating trips from Madrona)
[Note 1]
3 Yes Yes Partial
(No service Queen Anne–Downtown)
[Note 2]
North Queen Anne 5 Ave N, East Queen Anne, Seattle Center East (Uptown), Belltown, Downtown Seattle, First Hill, Harborview Medical Center, E Jefferson Ave, Swedish Hospital Cherry Hill, Central District Madrona 13 (Sunday only, most trips from Madrona)
4 Yes Yes Yes East Queen Anne 5 Ave N, Seattle Center East (Uptown), Belltown, Downtown Seattle, First Hill, Harborview Medical Center, E Jefferson Ave, Swedish Hospital Cherry Hill, Central District Judkins Park
7 Yes Yes Yes Downtown Seattle S Jackson St, International District, Rainier Ave S, Mount Baker Transit Center, Rainier Valley, Columbia City Rainier Beach 49 (early morning & evening only)
10 Yes Yes Yes Downtown Seattle Summit, Capitol Hill station, Group Health Hospital, 15th Ave E Capitol Hill
12 Yes Yes Yes Downtown Seattle First Hill, Swedish Medical Center, Seattle University, 19th Ave E, Group Health Hospital Interlaken Park
(Capitol Hill)
13 Yes Yes Yes Seattle Pacific University
(North Queen Anne)
Queen Anne Ave N, Seattle Center West (Uptown), Belltown Downtown Seattle 2 (Downtown-Madrona)
14 Yes Yes Yes Downtown Seattle S Jackson St, International District, Central District, 31 Ave S, Mount Baker Transit Center Mount Baker 1
36 Yes Yes Yes Downtown Seattle S Jackson St, Pacific Medical Center, Beacon Hill, Beacon Ave S, Jefferson Park, VA Hospital Othello station 70 (certain late night northbound trips)
[Note 3]
43 Limited
[Note 4]
Limited Limited Downtown Seattle Capitol Hill, Capitol Hill station, Group Health Hospital, Central District, Montlake, University of Washington station, UW Medical Center, University of Washington University District 44 (certain trips)
44 Yes Yes Yes Ballard
(Chittenden Locks)
NW Market St, West Woodland, N 45th St, Wallingford, University District, University of Washington, UW Medical Center University of Washington station 43 (certain trips)
[Note 5]
47 Yes Yes Yes Downtown Seattle Capitol Hill Summit
49 Yes Yes Yes University District 10th Ave E, Capitol Hill, Broadway, Seattle Central Community College Downtown Seattle 7 (early morning & evening only)
70 Yes Yes Yes University District Eastlake Ave E, Eastlake, Fairview Ave N, South Lake Union Downtown Seattle

"Night Owl" service operates on routes 7, 36 & 49. Additionally, special diesel "Night Owl" routes run over portions of some of the trolley routes, during the overnight hours. The Queen Anne portion of routes 3 & 4 is served by Route 82, and the Madrona portion of routes 2, 3 & 4 is served by route 84.


  1. Trips from Madrona to Downtown alternate between continuing as route 2 to West Queen Anne or route 13 to Seattle Pacific University.
  2. On Sunday and holidays, the Route 3 loop in North Queen Anne is not served. All trips from downtown Seattle operate as Route 4 and serve the East Queen Anne loop.
  3. Two late night northbound trips continue on as route 70, allowing passengers on Link light rail trains that terminate at Beacon Hill station to continue to Downtown Seattle and the University District.
  4. Service between University District and Downtown operates only during peak periods weekdays, in the peak commuting direction. Limited off-peak and weekend service between University District and Capitol Hill is operated as coaches travel between route 44 and Atlantic Base.
  5. Coaches operate as route 43 between University District and Capitol Hill as they travel between route 44 and Atlantic Base.


New Flyer XT40 trolleybus in downtown on Route 12 to Interlaken Park.

The Metro trolleybus fleet presently comprises two types, 40-foot (12 m) and 60-foot (18 m) articulated buses. These buses accrue a total of 3.7 million miles each year (62.8% on 40-foot buses, 37.2% on 60-foot buses) and are the cleanest and quietest buses in Metro's fleet.[7]:4-4

Metro's current trolleybuses are New Flyer Xcelsior coaches that were delivered beginning in 2015. These 174 coaches have a low floor design, a wheelchair ramp (instead of a lift) and air conditioning. The new trolleybuses are built with motors from Škoda[19] and a Vossloh Kiepe electric drive system, including an auxiliary power unit (lithium ion phosphate batteries)[19] that allow buses to operate off-wire for at least 3 miles, a first for Metro.[21]

Manufacturer Model Length Propulsion Year built Fleet numbers (Qty.)
New Flyer Xcelsior XT40 40 Feet 2014–2017 4300–4409 (110)
New Flyer Xcelsior XT60 60 Feet 2015–2016 4500–4563 (64)

Trolley motorization

Safety or routing issues sometimes require Metro to "motorize" the trolleybus routes, operating them with diesel or hybrid diesel-electric buses. These changes usually occur on weekends and is usually caused by maintenance on the overhead wires, construction projects near the overhead wires or special events (such as parades or marathons) that require the routes to be detoured.[30][31]


Trolleybuses parked at Atlantic Base.

Seattle's trolleybus fleet is operated out of Atlantic Base in SoDo, one of seven bus garages (known locally as bases) owned by the agency.[7]:4–6[32] Atlantic Base was completed in early 1941 and was built specifically to house and maintain trolleybuses.[6]

Trolleybuses were also formerly operated out of Jefferson Base in Seattle's Central District, a former streetcar barn, built in 1910. The last trolleybus departed Jefferson in 1982, and the base was razed to make way for athletic fields for nearby Seattle University.[9]

See also


  1. "Construction & Contractors: Trolley buses". King County Metro. January 6, 2015. Retrieved June 12, 2015.
  2. 1 2 "Electric Trolley Bus Fact Sheet" (PDF). Seattle Department of Transportation. January 2010. Retrieved June 13, 2015.
  3. "Public Transportation Ridership Report" (PDF). American Public Transportation Association. March 2, 2016. Retrieved November 20, 2016.
  4. "Trolleybus city: Seattle USA". TrolleyMotion. Retrieved August 25, 2011.
  5. 1 2 "Public Transportation Ridership Report" (PDF). American Public Transportation Association. August 22, 2016. Retrieved November 20, 2016.
  6. 1 2 3 4 "From Rails to Rubber (Part 1)". Metro Employees Historic Vehicle Association. Retrieved September 13, 2015.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Parametrix, LTK Engineering Services (May 27, 2011). King County Trolleybus Evaluation (PDF) (Report). King County Metro. Retrieved September 13, 2015.
  8. DeArmond, Richard (May 2, 2000). "The Sixtieth Year of Trolleybus Service in Seattle". Simon Fraser University. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 "From Rails to Rubber (Part 2)". Metro Employees Historic Vehicle Association. Retrieved September 13, 2015.
  10. Lane, Bob (March 16, 1987). "Bending trolleys are running late". The Seattle Times. p. D1.
  11. Trolleybus Magazine No. 276 (November–December 2007), p. 143. National Trolleybus Association (UK). ISSN 0266-7452
  12. Trolleybus Magazine No. 154 (July–August 1987), p. 97. National Trolleybus Association (UK).
  13. Updike, Robin (January 27, 1987). "Downtown Merchants Move, Add Promotion Tax In Their Efforts To Survive City's New Construction". The Seattle Times. p. C1. Retrieved September 13, 2015 via NewsBank. (subscription required (help)).
  14. Pemberton-Butler, Lisa (August 12, 1996). "Nautical Splash For Trolley Bus -- Metro Expansion Project Adds Artistic Touch". The Seattle Times. Retrieved April 3, 2016.
  15. King County Metro. "About Metro > Metro Vehicles > Gillig Trolley Bus". Retrieved January 2, 2016.
  16. 1 2 3 4 "Metro to partner with New Flyer on next generation of electric trolley buses". King County Metro. Retrieved February 24, 2014.
  17. Waltmunson, Kymber (September 1, 2009). "Transit Performance Audit Report Briefing, Part 1". King County Auditor’s Office. p. 11. Retrieved December 27, 2015.
  18. "Up to $31 million in savings and efficiencies identified in performance audit of Metro Transit". September 1, 2009. Retrieved December 27, 2015.
  19. 1 2 3 New Flyer. "King County Metro XT40 Xcelsior Spec Sheet". Retrieved November 8, 2014.
  20. "Metro Chooses New Flyer for New Trolleybuses". Seattle Transit Blog. Retrieved March 10, 2014.
  21. 1 2 Trolleybus Magazine No. 311 (September–October 2013), pp. 136–138. National Trolleybus Association (UK). ISSN 0266-7452
  22. King County Metro. "Facebook - King County Metro Transit". Retrieved November 8, 2014.
  23. Lindblom, Mike (August 18, 2015). "5 new trolleys arrive as part of Metro's replacement plan". The Seattle Times. Retrieved August 20, 2015.
  24. "23rd Avenue Corridor Improvements Project". Seattle Department of Transportation. Retrieved April 3, 2016.
  25. Nelson\Nygaard (August 28, 2014). Seattle Route 48 Electrification Study: Business Case – Executive Summary (PDF) (Report). Seattle Department of Transportation. Retrieved April 3, 2016.
  26. Green, Josh (April 5, 2016). "SDOT plans to 'electrify' 23rd Ave". KING 5 News. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  27. Shaner, Zach (March 23, 2016). "Seattle Pacific Trolley Extension Coming in March 2017". Seattle Transit Blog. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  28. "Chapter 3: Corridors". Transit Master Plan: Final Summary Report (PDF) (Report). Seattle Department of Transportation. February 1, 2016. pp. 3–25. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  29. "Chapter 4: Service". Transit Master Plan: Final Summary Report (PDF) (Report). Seattle Department of Transportation. February 1, 2016. pp. 4–19. Retrieved April 3, 2016.
  30. "Trolley Motorization". King County Metro. Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  31. Brown, Charles E. (December 14, 2009). "Why diesel buses sub for Metro's electric trolleys". The Seattle Times. Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  32. Lindblom, Mike (May 8, 2010). "Fate of trolleybuses hangs in balance". The Seattle Times. Retrieved December 14, 2015.

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