The UK’s first hydrogen train will be pulling up in 2020

The UK will see it’s first hydrogen-fuelled train in 2020, the Rail Safety & Standards Board has announced. The prototype train, announced in February 2018, is projected to be on the tracks by late 2019 or early 2020.

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The pilot scheme will test the viability of hydrogen as a fuel for passenger trains and, pending a successful trial, it may be more widely rolled out across the UK’s fleet of trains. Its use in rail freight may also be explored.

The announcement follows similar progress in the automotive sector, where electric and hybrid vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. In the UK, transport accounts for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

With 1.7 billion rail journeys made in the UK each year, the introduction of a low-carbon option is an important step in reducing transport-related emissions.

How does it work?

In cars and buses, hydrogen gas is stored in the vehicle, just like petrol or diesel – except under high pressure. This is because hydrogen has a lower fuel density than petroleum fuels, meaning that there is less energy contained within a comparable quantity.

The hydrogen is fed into a fuel cell stack, where it is mixed with oxygen from the ambient air. The chemical reaction between these elements generates electricity. This electricity drives the motors which powers the vehicle. Excess energy generated from this process (and from regenerative braking) is stored in a small, on-board battery.

In principle and in practice, a hydrogen train will operate in the same way. In Germany, the Alstom iLint hydrogen train offers a blueprint for the prototype to be delivered in the UK.

The Alstom train can compete with traditional, petroleum-fuelled trains in terms of speed and distance – capable of carrying up to 300 passengers and travelling between 600-800km with a top speed of 140/km/h – and it does so without compromising the air quality where it operates.

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The history of hydrogen fuel

Hydrogen-fuelled transport isn’t a new technology. Its most famous application has been in the NASA Centaur and Apollo rockets in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, hybrid cars and buses have become popular.

Low-carbon transport like electric vehicles – which are now cleaner than they were five years ago – and hydrogen buses are important technologies in the wider decarbonisation of the economy.

These aren’t even the first locomotives powered purely by clean energy. In 2017, the Dutch rail operator Nederlandse Spoorwegen announced that all its trains would be powered by wind energy. Similarly, one resort near Byron Bay in Australia uses trains which have been converted to run on solar power.

As public awareness of the dangers of poor air quality has grown, so the shift towards cleaner fuel sources for vehicles has become a top priority. The combustion of petroleum fuels has negative consequences on the local scale, but also in global terms due to carbon emissions.

 

Globally, the transport sector accounts for 28% of total energy consumption, primarily in the form of fossil fuel derivatives. As such, the move away from these and towards cleaner sources represents a potentially huge shift, not just in terms of local air quality but also in terms of emissions reductions.

The UK already has an impressive portfolio of low-carbon transport, with electric and hybrid buses already on the streets of London and Birmingham, and electric buses prominent in Edinburgh, York and Oxford.

As these technologies develop, and the infrastructure supporting them becomes more widespread, there is the potential for a virtuous cycle of development and deployment of low-carbon transport – leading to a cleaner, more sustainable future for everyone in the UK.

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