Reducing the cost of operating rail services and meeting the government's zero carbon objectives for transport require a sustainable electrification programme for Britain’s railways using a mix of technologies including overhead wiring, third rail, battery and hydrogen. Tyne and Wear Metro battery electric locomotive BL1 at Gosforth Depot. Photo by Twiceuponatime, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.
Life is currently on hold, probably for some time, leading to a necessary preoccupation on mitigating the devastating effect of the Coronavirus, Covid-19. The likely effects on the viability of the UK’s rail industry are dire in the short term, but in the longer term, we must recognise rail’s potential contribution to environmental, social and economic issues. This will result in a resumption of rail growth, achieved largely by modal transfer, and all the issues of lack of capacity on our rail network to accommodate it. It is wise to use the current life on hold situation to prepare for the future. We must not waste this opportunity.
In March 2020 the government published ‘Decarbonising Transport – Setting the Challenge’, recognising that ‘Transport has a huge role to play in the economy reaching net zero. The scale of the challenge demands a step change in both the breadth and scale of ambition and we have a duty to act quickly and decisively to reduce emissions.’ The urgency of meeting net zero was demonstrated by the recent record-breaking heatwave in Siberia, which is described as ‘unequivocal evidence of the impact of climate change on the planet’.
In response to the UK Minister for Rail’s challenge to the industry to remove ‘all diesel only trains off the track by 2040’ and ‘produce a vision for how the rail industry will decarbonise’, Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce and RSSB recommended that this would require a combination of additional, progressive electrification of more intensively used routes, and beginning to implement alternative zero or low carbon solutions, where we know electrification will never be the lowest whole life carbon and cost option (primarily battery and hydrogen, where their performance capabilities meet journey requirements).
Railfuture has long campaigned for a rolling programme of electrification, learning the lessons from the cost escalation of the GW project, and retaining the skills which have been built up. We need to double the capacity of our railways, to be achieved by electrification and projects to remove bottlenecks. This is increasingly recognised by the wider public as rail is increasingly acknowledged as an essential component of our economic and social development. It is also key to plans to address climate change if rail can efficiently play a greater role in an integrated transport system with a greater modal share on rail. Indeed a Channel 4 Despatches programme recently seen by about 700,000 people was solely focused on the electrification and bottleneck issues highlighted by Railfuture
Railfuture contends that if rail is to realise its true potential the whole network should be powered by electric traction or similar alternative technologies that do not produce emissions at the point of use, such as batteries, capacitors and hydrogen. The programme must be phased in such a way as to be deliverable and consistent with the provision of power from environmentally sustainable sources such as nuclear, hydro-electric, solar and wind power.
Railfuture sets out its 10 year electrification programme priorities with associated projects to eliminate bottlenecks such as the Castlefield Corridor. These are set against the wider context of the need to revive and stimulate the economy by investment in electrification projects, creating sustainable long term employment, whist achieving value for money results in the form of a higher capacity railway, capable of carrying a higher market share, that genuinely contributes to our future wellbeing and direction of the country.
In compiling the 10 year plan, Railfuture is acutely aware that electrification schemes were stopped because the industry was seen as incapable of delivering them effectively to time or to budget, not because electrification is a bad idea.
Any programme of electrification must therefore build on lessons learned here. The Railfuture 10 year plan is therefore compiled in a way that, if adopted, would facilitate effective project delivery as a rolling programme. The proposal is to build on the current electrification teams now nearing the end of the current part aborted electrification schemes, completing the programme they were set up to deliver, then moving on to deliver incremental programmes in specific geographic areas.
The key criterion is a continuous programme of work so allowing project skills to be built up and retained by the industry. The programme is also designed to allow project teams to focus on particular geographic areas as the work progresses.
Railfuture’s priority list is compiled against a set of key project criteria as follows:
1. Business Case, existing or potential strength
- A business case already in situ (ie for aborted schemes)
- Traffic density ie potentially a strong business case (where currently not developed).
- Requirement or potential for significant increase in capacity to effect modal transfer..
- Meeting devolved authority requirements (such as Transport for the North, Transport for the West Midlands, Transport Scotland) with a view to providing integrated transport systems in major cities. Railfuture branches are contributing to this dialogue, conscious that capacity constraints currently limit rail’s potential in meeting the needs of our cities.
2. Cost minimalisation assumptions
- Interface with the existing electrified network yielding ability to increase electric mileage over the existing electrified network (ie mileage on existing electrified routes that can be potentially converted to electric operation).
- Plain single, double or multiple track mileage.
- Scheme complexity reduction opportunities by use of existing electrification, at terminals (egs Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh) and routes leading into terminals which have more complex wiring in situ (eg Colton Junction to York, Hazel Grove – Stockport – Manchester).
- Existing infrastructure upgrades where authorised or currently under consultation, are assumed as required irrespective of electrification. * Limited route reopenings are included on the basis of that they are potentially justified separately but if provided, they should be included in the electrification programme (eg Skelmersdale, Levenmouth)
3. Cost Environmental mitigation
- Pollution from diesel operated rail vehicles, particularly important at pollution hot spots at covered stations (particularly Manchester Victoria, Leeds, Birmingham New Street, Waterloo)
- Emission reduction by increasing rail’s modal share. The pollutants, referred to as ‘air toxics’ are carbon monoxide (CO), lead (Pb), Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), Ozone (O3), Particulate matter (PM), and sulphur dioxide (SO2). Given the move to increasingly stringent exhaust emission requirements for road vehicles, it is PM from tyres and brakes that is the focus of increasing concern. PM is claimed to be many times worse than what comes out of a car’s exhaust.
- Certain turnback sidings on existing routes if electrified could also effect a transfer from diesel to electric mileage (eg Morpeth) providing cascade and environmental benefits.
4. Network cascade benefits
- Potential cascade opportunity whereby modern dmus or bimodes can be cascaded to bring benefits in the short term pending completion of the full plan providing capacity upgrades to other non-electrified routes. Cascade improves and spreads the environmental benefits of electrification.
- Scrapping of older obsolescent diesel rolling stock (such as Class 150 and 153/155 Sprinter dmus). The Cascade brings environment and passenger benefits of electrification to diesel operated routes.
5. Network resilience benefits
- Certain routes are included, with lower utilisation, on the basis they can provide significant improvements to the resilience of the network in cases of disruption or engineering blockades Climate change mitigation is already becoming a serious issue so increasing the focus on improving system resilience. (eg Nuneaton – Birmingham, Birmingham Camp Hill Line), Bolton – Wigan). Railfuture will be separately addressing the network resilience issue in the context of other proposed reopenings.
6. Freight on rail
- Potential contribution to a coherent electrified freight network, so making investment in more bimode locomotives for freight viable for freight operators. Recent lockdown experience has demonstrated the value of a railway free of capacity constraints, and the contribution it can make to the British economy. Railfuture’s target is that network capacity for freight and passenger must increase by 100% so freeing rail freight operation from its current marginal status.
- Based on a continuous incremental programme, using and building on existing, or recently disbanded, electrification project teams.
- Establishment of a secure supply chain.
Project Team 1. Trans Pennine
1. Trans-Pennine: Manchester Piccadilly and Victoria via Stalybridge to Huddersfield, Leeds and York
Trans-Pennine remains Railfuture’s electrification priority with an established business case. This would assimilate the Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge scheme and would build on the capacity addition provided by Network Rail’s Huddersfield to Mirfield four tracking capacity enhancement project.
Liverpool/Manchester Airport to Newcastle/Edinburgh services would be electrically operated throughout with the current bimodes cascaded to Redcar, Scarborough and Hull services.
2. Calder Valley: Leeds via Bradford to Manchester Victoria, including Brighouse
This also requires the completion of the Mirfield four tracking capacity enhancement project and Rochdale to Manchester (see 3 below) so strengthening the incremental case of adding the Calder Valley. It would be facilitated by electric operation of services via Brighouse and provide a resilient four tracked, high capacity electrified route between Leeds and Manchester used by regional, local passenger trains and Trans Pennine freight. In planning terms the Diggle and Calder Valley route would be planned a single high capacity route.
3. Greater Manchester suburban infill
An incremental programme starting with Wigan to Bolton (previously authorised), meeting the requirements of Transport for the North.
This is based on a major capacity upgrade of the Castlefield Corridor and additional station capacity at Manchester Piccadilly, Oxford Road and Victoria, also providing a third Manchester to Preston electrified route for resilience. A consistent train performance profile is important on these busy routes.
It is hoped that a new Manchester Arena will be built in East Manchester, so facilitating a necessary capacity upgrade at Manchester Victoria.
An early priority is Manchester Victoria to Rochdale so facilitating the case for the Calder Valley scheme.
4. West Yorkshire infill
An Incremental programme based on Leeds station starting with Leeds to Harrogate and York as a priority, meeting the requirements of Transport for the North.
5. North West battery/electric infill. Barrow to Carnforth, Windermere to Oxenholme, Bentham and Copy Pit.
This is based on the need to use existing electrified routes more effectively (ie Manchester Airport to Carnforth/Oxenholme) eliminating current Barrow and Windermere to Manchester Airport diesel services. These routes strongly meet the criteria but Railfuture understands that an option of battery/electric operation using modern trains is under development, initially for the Windermere branch so maintaining through trains from Manchester Airport to Windermere.
The is no evident case to justify electrification of Lancaster to Morecambe, Lancaster to Leeds and Blackpool to York but all three meet several of the criteria as these routes are 50% electrified. Low traffic and service density suggests a battery/electric or bimode operation is more appropriate for these geographically adjacent routes.
Railfuture therefore proposes a cluster of battery/electric or bimode operations based initially on the Windermere development.
Project Team 2 Great Western
1. Completion of GW electrification
Rather than disband the existing team, the previously authorised scheme would proceed continuously including Didcot to Oxford, Chippenham to Bristol, Bristol to Bristol Parkway (and connecting to Cardiff) and Cardiff to Swansea.
The Vale of Glamorgan line should be costed as a potential diversionary route.
Completion of the South Main Line would also facilitate the reinstatement of the Maesteg and Ebbw Valley lines into the programme either as electric or bimode operation.
2. Welsh Valley electrification and capacity upgrade as specified by Transport for Wales/Trafnidiaeth Cymru
The Transport for Wales Valley Lines electrification programme, although justified as providing an integrated regional service, is also essential in widening the catchment area of the electrified national network to include the densely populated Welsh Valleys.
The Valley Lines infrastructure has been transferred to Transport for Wales/Trafnidiaeth Cymru which plans to convert the whole network to electric/bimode operation. Railfuture supports this plan as part of the overall proposal.
Project Team 3. Midland Main Line
1. Completion of Midland Line electrification as originally authorised
Rather than disband the current team after completing Bedford to Corby, the previously authorised scheme would proceed including Market Harborough to Leicester and Nottingham, and via Derby to Sheffield. This also provides for Derby to Nottingham. Market Harborough station has just been rebuilt with passive provision as an electrified turnback location to facilitate work in more complex areas such as Leicester and Trent.
Sheffield station already requires a capacity upgrade to provide for an enhanced Midland Main Line service. The planned, but delayed Dore double tracking is also necessary to accommodate Transport for the North’s aspirations for a 4 tph, 30 minute Manchester to Sheffield service.
2. Trans-Pennine Manchester Piccadilly, Stockport to Sheffield via the Hope Valley (ie Hazel Grove to Dore, on the assumption that Team 3 will have completed electrification and the capacity upgrade of the Midland Main Line to Sheffield).
This would be based upon the planned delivery of Network Rail’s Hope Valley freight capacity project and double tracking at Dore. Capacity work is also required at Hazel Grove, Chinley and at Sheffield to realise the potential of electrification of this route to meet Northern Powerhouse aspirations and projected freight growth, particularly from Hope and Peak Forest quarries.
3. Midland Main Line extension taking account of HS2 at Toton
Trent Junction and Nottingham to Chesterfield via Toton and via Trowell
Toton is the only HS2 station planned for the British network without a rail connection for distribution. A light rail link is envisaged for West Nottingham. An electrified upgrade of the Erewash valley line is therefore seen as a major priority in order to bring the potential benefits of HS2 to the region.
Project Team 4 Scotland
1. Scottish InterCity and Fife
Edinburgh to Dundee and Aberdeen including the Fife circle and Levenmouth (reopening).
Provides for a London and Edinburgh to Dundee and Aberdeen electric service and a full Fife circle electric suburban service. Consideration of the Ladybank – Perth route would be examined in the context of any proposed enhancement of service on this route and in conjunction with 2 below.
2. Scottish InterCity 2
Dunblane to Perth and Dundee.
Infill electrification scheme giving Perth an electric service to Glasgow and Edinburgh, in addition to Glasgow to Dundee and Aberdeen.
Bimode operation is proposed for Glasgow to Inverness, Aberdeen-Inverness and the far north lines in this first 10 year phase.
3. Glasgow suburban infill
Glasgow to Kilmarnock and Troon including double track capacity upgrade of the Kilmarnock route.
Scotland already has an effective electrification project delivery capability, so these skills must be applied to a continuing programme using Scotland’s already acquired electrification project delivery capability.
Bimode operation is proposed for longer distance routes to Stranraer and the GSW Carlisle route is this first 10 year phase.
Project Team 5 West Midlands (Newly established team)
1. West Midlands operational resilience and capacity schemes including Birmingham to Kings Norton via Camp Hill, Birmingham to Nuneaton, Nuneaton to Coventry, Wolverhampton to Shrewsbury.
These are proposed to provide additional residence and capacity to the West Midlands rail network and the West Coast Main Line operation.
2. West Midlands infill as determined by Transport for the West Midlands potentially including remaining non electrified suburban lines from New Street and Moor Street/Snow Hill.
Project Team 6. Phase 1. The dc Project Team
1. Extension of the Merseyrail dc network ie Kirkby to Skelmersdale (regeneration) 2 tph and Wigan Wallgate 2tph through from Liverpool
This requires an infrastructure upgrade at Kirby and double track to Wigan Wallgate, together with new infrastructure into Skelmersdale. This operation would be electric as apart from electric/battery.
2. Ormskirk to Preston
The basic proposal is to provide a 2tph through electric service to Preston requiring an upgrade at Ormskirk. This would provide a base for consideration of electric/battery operated new services in the form of a Preston – Southport and a Southport – Liverpool service, via reinstated Burscough Junctions.
3. Wrexham to Bidston upgrade
The proposed 2tph Wrexham to Bidston service to be extended to Birkenhead North using battery technology or on to Liverpool using electric/battery operation. The case for dc electrification would be tested on the basis of a 2 tph service and observed passenger growth.
4. Ellesmere Port - Helsby
Extension of existing 2tph Liverpool – Ellesmere Port service to Helsby, made the cut on the basis of low cost and improved connectivity to Warrington, North West England, Scotland and Manchester from the Ellesmere Port area.
Project Team 6 Phase 2. Move to Southern infill
1. Uckfield Line
Although battery traction is being developed for this route, dc electrification stands up well on traffic density terms, additionally benefitting from the removal of long dmu operated trains from London Bridge and Croydon.
2. Ashford – Ore (Hastings, Eastbourne)
This is a low volume route but meets several of the criteria having already been electrified at both ends, as well as large diesel mileage over the electrified route to Eastbourne. Battery traction would be an alternative.
3. Other Southern routes
Eliminating diesel traction from Waterloo is important, suggesting consideration be given to Basingstoke to Salisbury. The nature of the current service, ie Waterloo to Exeter and Bristol, suggests that bimodes should be a priority to replace the current dmu operated service which operates frequent 9 car trains over the electrified route from Basingstoke to London at 90mph, the most intense dmu operated service in Britain. Railfuture will be seeking advice on the case for lengthening the electrification component of bimode routes. Basingstoke to Salisbury is likely to be a good test case, together with other lines around Southampton.
There are also several reopening candidates where electrification would be valuable and potentially an essential enabling factor, including the Isle of Grain branch to Hoo in Medway and the Fawley branch in Hampshire.
Reading to Gatwick Airport is assumed to be bimode as currently under development.
Project Team 7. Freight Programme Office
Freight electrification would be determined by a group of freight stakeholders and rail freight operators, and designed to improve the efficiency and double the capacity of the railfreight operation and improve its competitiveness, by providing greater operational efficiency. Delivery would be through a programme office, working through the above project teams to ensure also that all schemes provide proper capacity for freight and that certain incremental freight electrification schemes are efficiently integrated.
Particular capacity and electrification schemes advocated include:
- A strategic electrified link from the West Coast Main Line into Trafford Park to facilitate freight access without using the Castlefield Corridor.
- A further capacity upgrade and electrification between Ipswich and Felixstowe.
- The Freight Programme office should also examine the case to electrify access to other significant deep sea container points including Thameshaven and Teesport.
- South Wales has a high concentration of freight activity potentially benefitting from electric haulage. Examining access into freight sidings from the South Wales Main Line would be a priority.
It is clear however that further freight capacity on the West Coast Main Line depends on HS2 and a capacity upgrade at Ledburn Junction. The Freight Programme Office would determine if the case for electrification from Ipswich to Peterborough to Nuneaton can be made in the context of avoiding a significant West Coast upgrade pending HS2 Phase 2.
Similarly Railfuture’s plan assumes that Network Rail’s capacity upgrade aspirations for the York to Newcastle section of the East Coast Main line associated with HS2 are delivered. The aim is to provide a four track electrified railway by including the Eaglescliffe to Ferryhill route. Railfuture sees establishment of a resilient high capacity four track route from York to Newcastle as a priority, similar in concept to the Trans Pennine Diggle/Calder Valley proposal. This is particularly important as a continuation of HS2 Phase 2 and for freight. It will form a key response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s inquiry in respect of providing service north of York.
The Freight Programme Office would also revisit the DfT’s original Electric Spine proposal, also abandoned, to determine options to connect Southampton to the Midlands, the North and Scotland via the West Coast and Midland Main Lines. Such a concept should also connect the Great Western Main Line from South Wales into the Spine, so improving its justification.
Julian Worth, an experienced and respected rail freight colleague, has published a list of priorities and these are listed in more detail in the Freight section of the Railfuture website. The Programme Office should examine these in terms of detailed justification.
Other routes beyond the 10 year plan
The 10 year plan provides significant capacity for deployment of bimode or battery/electric trains on routes not completed in this first phase, such as North East to South West, South Coast, North Wales coast and remaining non-electrified throughout Trans Pennine routes. These would all follow in the second 10 year phase.
For other regional or local services the model implemented in East Anglia is proposed where battery/electric or bimodes will be employed on all routes, cascading onto additional services as the electrification project is rolled out.
The electrification programme proposed above focuses on routes which are intensively used. There are many other routes which are less intensively used, or which are towards the back of the queue for electrification, where battery-electric trains could be brought into service relatively soon for services which run relatively short distances away from the wires (or 3rd rail). They would offer operating cost savings and environmental benefits against diesel power without a high capital cost, and would allow many older more polluting diesel units which are approaching end-of-life to be replaced.
Battery-electric technology is well proven and in service in Japan for passenger trains, and in Birmingham and in Europe for trams. Battery electric passenger trains have been piloted in the UK, both by Network Rail and by Vivarail. Units in use in Japan have a maximum speed of 75mph, whilst the class 379 trialled by Network Rail achieved an acceleration of 0.5m/s/s, equivalent to a class 150 diesel multiple unit.
To achieve a realistic range of 50 miles for a typical four-car unit a battery pack weighing up to 15 tonnes might be required. This is a weight penalty of about 5% compared to a diesel unit which unlike an electric unit has the weight penalty of engines and fuel. The battery pack would cost perhaps £150,000, but battery manufacturers will warrant a life of 7 years so over that period it costs less than maintaining the engines on a diesel unit. Despite the weight penalty and the inefficiency of recharging batteries, energy costs for a battery-electric unit are less than fuel costs for a diesel unit and a battery-electric unit produces fewer emissions.
For shorter journeys or shorter trains, the cost and weight would be less – for example for the proposed Merseyrail trial, the battery in the class 777 will weigh only 5 tonne as the unit is 25% lighter than a typical 4-car and Ellesmere Port - Helsby return is only 11 miles. Battery cost and weight are also reducing over time as the technology improves, driven by the demand for electric cars and vans.
In addition to Vivarail’s D-Trains, there are around 150 electric multiple units built since 1991 which are going spare (or will be shortly) that could be converted to battery-electric, but progress on development, let alone introduction into service, has been glacial. This must be done quickly - the train operators need some positive encouragement from the Department for Transport.
There are a surprisingly large number of candidate services for battery-electric trains which meet the criteria of not more than 50 miles travelled away from the electrified network, low traffic density and maximum speed not more than 75mph. Even where these services already use bi-mode trains, a carbon saving can be made by replacing these with battery-electric trains and redeploying the bimodes to services where the distance is too great for battery-electric trains.
These services do not necessarily have to travel on the electrified network for any part of their journey – Vivarail have shown that a 10 minute dwell time (or less) at the end of the journey is sufficient to recharge for a 50 mile journey (or more), and by recharging from a battery stack through dedicated contacts under the train (only live when the train is present) the capacity of the feed required from the electricity grid is reduced.
Services extending away from the existing electric network
- Eastbourne – Ashford – Hastings
- South Western:
- Salisbury – Southampton – Romsey
- Reading – Guildford – Redhill - Gatwick (currently planned for bimode)
- GW branches: Greenford, Windsor, Marlow, Henley
- Reading – Basingstoke
- London Paddington - Reading – Oxford (until electrified)
- London – Paddington - Reading – Bedwyn
- Swindon – Melksham – Westbury
- Welsh Valley lines (partial electrification planned, with some battery operation and some bimodes in short term)
- Greater Anglia (although bimodes already deployed):
- GE branches: Felixstowe, Sudbury
- Norwich – Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft
- Cambridge – Ipswich
- Marylebone – Aylesbury
- West Midlands:
- Bletchley – Bedford (until EWR electrified)
- Leamington – Coventry - Nuneaton
- Merseyrail (one train will be fitted with batteries for trial operation – unless the 3rd rail is extended):
- Liverpool - Ormskirk – Preston
- Liverpool – Kirkby - Skelmersdale (potential reopening)
- Liverpool - Ellesmere Port – Helsby
- Lancaster - Morecambe/Heysham
- Manchester – Oxenholme - Windermere (battery class 331 being considered)
- Manchester - Warrington Central – Liverpool
- Manchester - Buxton
- Manchester - Chinley/ Rose Hill Marple (possible conversion to tram-train)
- Leeds – Harrogate – York
- Leeds – Sheffield
- Leeds/Wakefield - Knottingley (services extended to Goole would require supply there)
- Wakefield – Huddersfield
- Glasgow – Kilmarnock
- Glasgow – East Kilbride
- Glasgow Queen St - Anniesland
Services extending away from the existing electric network, requiring supply at remote end
- London Bridge - Uckfield (unless the 3rd rail is extended)
- South Western:
- London – Waterloo - Basingstoke – Salisbury
- Swindon – Cheltenham Spa
- Maesteg - Cardiff – Gloucester (although bimodes already ordered)
- Greater Anglia:
- Norwich – Sheringham (although bimodes already deployed)
- West Midlands:
- Birmingham – Shrewsbury
- Crewe – Shrewsbury
- East Midlands:
- Crewe - Derby
- Wrexham – Bidston (requires extension of services to Birkenhead North or Liverpool loop and longer dwell time at Wrexham, with additional units)
- Manchester – Stockport – Chester
- Manchester – Southport/Kirkby (currently planned for bimode)
- Manchester – Clitheroe
- Manchester Victoria - Rochdale - Burnley
- Manchester – Lancaster - Barrow in Furness
- Blackpool South – Colne
- Leeds – Skipton – Morecambe
- Selby – Hull
- Newcastle – Ashington (potential reopening)
Services extending away from the proposed electric network (ie MML to Sheffield, Bristol Temple Meads, Manchester – Leeds via Huddersfield)
- Oxford – Banbury
- Cardiff – Taunton
- Bristol – Severn Beach
- Bristol – Portishead (when opened)
- East Midlands
- Newark - Derby – Matlock
- Nottingham – Worksop (requires supply at Worksop)
- Manchester – Sheffield
- Sheffield – Pontefract Baghill – York
- Sheffield – Barnsley – Huddersfield
- Sheffield – Wakefield Kirkgate – Leeds
- Huddersfield – Halifax
Services remote from the electric network, requiring charging at one end
- Plymouth – Gunnislake
- Par – Newquay
- Truro – Falmouth
- St Erth – St Ives
- Cleethorpes – Barton on Humber
Services remote from the electric network, requiring charging at both ends
- Exmouth – Barnstaple
- Blaenau Ffestiniog - Llandudno
A recent study of climate-neutral traction technology by VDE, the Association for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies in Germany, has concluded that over a 30-year life-cycle battery-powered multiple-units are substantially cheaper and more efficient than those powered by hydrogen. Hitachi have also partnered with Hyperdrive to develop battery trains with a speed capability up to 100mph for regional services, which would be an alternative to bimodes where there are gaps in electrification.
Hydrogen is a potential alternative to diesel because it is non-polluting at the point of use – the only exhaust product is water. A fuel cell on the train generates electricity directly from hydrogen. Because the power output of the fuel cell cannot be varied quickly to match demand, batteries are used to store the electricity, smoothing the demand.
Hydrogen is produced as a waste by-product from some industrial processes in both north-east and north-west England. Hydrogen is difficult to store and transport, so it is proposed that the prototype hydrogen-powered trains will be trialled on lines in those areas.
However, the amount of hydrogen available as a by-product would not be sufficient for widespread use nationally to power rail and road transport, so a production capability would be needed, either by a chemical process from a feedstock such as natural gas or by electrolysis of water. Therefore hydrogen can considered either as a fuel, or as a means of storing electricity – but whereas battery storage is 80-90% efficient, hydrogen storage (production of hydrogen by electrolysis then generation of electricity by a fuel cell) is less than 40% efficient, so the energy costs and emissions of hydrogen-powered trains will be double those of battery trains.
The environmental credentials of hydrogen depend on the feedstock used or the source of the electricity for electrolysis – overall CO2 emissions for hydrogen derived from natural gas are slightly lower than for diesel power, but no better than a diesel hybrid, whilst electrolysis using the current mix of UK-generated electricity is as bad as pure diesel, although by 2040 that should have improved to be better than a diesel hybrid – but not as good as overhead electrification. Unless a cheap source of electricity is available, the cost of hydrogen power is likely to be higher than diesel.
Alstom with Eversholt, Porterbrook with Birmingham University, and Vivarail are all working to build hydrogen-powered trains, either by converting existing surplus electric trains or building new. This work must be accelerated to prove the financial and technical viability of hydrogen power for low-intensity services over longer distances than are possible with battery power, such as Tees Valley/Whitby, Central Wales, and the Far North, Kyle and West Highland lines in Scotland.
Railfuture’s 10 year plan is ambitious, representing the maximum that is viable to deliver over the next 10 years. If such a programme were achieved it would make significant impact on the capacity and resilience of Britain’s rail network to accommodate growth and address the nation’s economic, social and environmental objectives from our transport network including modal share diversion to rail.
Price tag £20bn, not including essential bottleneck schemes including the Castlefield Corridor.
Railfuture will continue to campaign for a sustainable, properly resourced, electrification programme for Britain’s railways with a continuous workload plan so supporting a viable and stable supply chain based in Britain.
DfT: Decarbonising Transport – Setting the challenge
Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce (2019) Final Report to the Minister for Rail