The UK rail network could be home to a small fleet of hydrogen-powered trains by 2022.
That’s the suggestion from Dr Stuart Hillmansen, Senior Lecturer in Electrical Energy Systems at the University of Birmingham, who spoke to FNZ about the first-ever hydrogen-powered train run on the UK mainline last week and its potential to pave the way for a cleaner future for UK rail.
The first 25-mile journey of the HydroFLEX train with passengers on board took place in Warwickshire and was supported by the Department for Transport.
It follows almost two years’ development work and more than £1 million of investment by both railway rolling stock company Porterbrook and the University of Birmingham.
The project involves the conversion of an existing Class 319 train, fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell, giving it the ability to run autonomously on hydrogen power on non-electrified routes.
Dr Stuart Hillmansen says: “When we started this project we realised, it would be impossible to electrify every single track, some tracks and routes are serving communities that are not so densely populated. These are really important parts of the railway system and is not economic to electrify absolute everything.”
That was the point the scientific team found hydrogen was the ideal contender for providing a long-term sustainable solution.
He believes UK rail can move completely away from fossil fuels: “If we have a solar farm or wind farm that could be connected with an electrolyser which produces the hydrogen and this could be put into the train. This project doesn’t require any fossil fuel.
“Once you achieve that is a sustainable solution because we could see hydrogen trains for the next hundreds of years. There is no reason why we are going to run out of solar or wind power and as long you have water you can make a fuel which is suitable for mobile applications.”
He explains when companies buy trains, they expect them to work for 35-40 years or even longer, so the need to leave fossil fuels is more urgent than ever: “Our commitment is to decarbonise by 2050, which means we can’t keep buying diesel infrastructure and diesel equipment now because it will become obsolete during its lifetime. So the rail industry globally knows it needs to do something about this immediately.”
Mr Hillmansen notes the next stage of HydroFLEX is already well underway, with the University of Birmingham developing hydrogen and battery-powered modules that can be fitted underneath the train, which will allow more space for passengers in the carriages.
“For the current HydroFLEX, it was easier to install the equipment above the wheels in a carriage and also allowed us to showcase the technology so that several hundreds of people see the technology, fuel cells, the hydrogen tanks up close.”
He believes the innovative technology behind the trains will also be available in two or three years to retrofit current in-service trains to hydrogen.
He said: “We did the HydroFLEX project from zero to having a mainline approved vehicle in two years. We don’t see a problem in the next two years being able to achieve a production design that is suitable for carrying passengers on the mainline.”
Transport currently accounts for around a quarter of the U.K.’s greenhouse gas emissions and the government has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by at least 80%, against 1990 levels, by 2050.