Status in GB
The Rail Industry Association's submission to the Commons Transport Select Committee in 2019 estimated that in 2024 the diesel and bi-mode passenger fleet will be around 4,430 vehicles (28% of the total fleet). The Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce also stated: "there are, or shortly will be, about 3,000-3,300 diesel passenger vehicles that will need to be replaced, re-engined or converted, to decarbonise the railway." The TDNR stated that it makes little sense for new diesel trains to be ordered. In other words, those which need to be replaced in the coming years should be replaced with new decarbonised trains.
This can be achieved either by ordering new trains, or by converting existing diesel or electric ones. Unfortunately, although the process is further advanced in several continental countries, because of Britain's more limited loading gauge, continental trains cannot simply be operated on British track. On the continent, batteries or hydrogen supplies can be put on the roof, but this is generally not possible in Britain, trains for Britain have to find space under the train (or occupying space which could otherwise be used for passengers).
According to ORR, in Britain as of March 2020, there were 15,904km of open rail route, of which 6,049 were electrified, some 38% of the total; total track km is given as 31,218, meaning total track km is roughly twice route km, meaning average no of tracks per route is roughly 2. Further electrification has taken place since then, which will increase the electrified percentage; on the other hand, the various new/reopened tracks planned will generally not be electrified, which will reduce the percentage. On the positive side, because many of the most intensely used lines are electrified, according to the RIDT some 80% of total journey km in Britain are on electrified tracks.
Electrification has a rather patchy stop-go history in Britain, with cost overruns leading to a recent 'pause' in the program. Projects in Scotland however have continued, and lines in the South Wales Metro are also funded, in some cases discontinuous to save money. Even in England, some projects continue, and projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Connect require electrification on the main tracks.
Network Rail, in the TDNS, takes the view that, because current alternatives cannot provide the power for freight traffic, all lines used by freight will have to be electrified. This will however be hugely expensive, and whether the government will agree to fund this remains to be seen. The TDNS also seems to assume that alternatives like batteries will not improve over the next 10-20 years, a highly dubious assumption.
Britain was quick off the mark to test extending the range of electric trains by adding Valence Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries to a Bombardier Class 379 Turbostar, and running it as a normal passenger service on the Manningtree-Harwich line. Although the batteries used had no cooling system, causing them to overheat in the afternoon, forcing them to be turned off, the 2016 report from Network Rail concluded that: "The IPEMU [Independently Powered Electric Multiple Unit] trial was completed successfully in 2015 with ... a publicly available passenger service running to the existing timetable under intermittent battery power." The report also said: "The IPEMU was a significant example of the practicability of a battery-powered train and paves the way for discontinuous electrification to be considered more seriously as part of electric services. However, the potential benefits are not limited to that. The effective use of IP or battery power can:
- aid the introduction of other energy sources such as Hydrogen,
- expand the services electric rolling stock can offer,
- increase diversionary route availability and service robustness,
- reduce emissions at point of use,
- contribute to workforce safety by reducing infrastructure, and
- simplify future electrification projects."
These advantages remain true, but sadly the country is no further forward than it was 6 years ago. Manufacturers have the technology, which they are starting to implement in continental countries, but they can do nothing without firm orders. Consequently, there needs to be a clear plan for testing/trialing new technology and then ordering appropriate trains, aimed at replacing diesel stock across all franchises as quickly as possible.
Several metro-type operations have ordered and/or are trialing battery-electric trains:
- Merseyrail's long-term strategy and their contract with Stadler foresee testing of battery-equipped train on Ellesmere Port-Helsby during 2000. If successful, this could be used, with agreement with current operators, on Ormskirk-Preston; a reopened line to Skelmersdale; Kirkby-Wigan; Hunt's Cross-Warrington; Chester-Crewe. Liverpool-Bidston-Wrexham would also be possible with recharging facility at Wrexham. Reopening lines such as Wapping Tunnel, Bootle or North Mersey branch, or the Burscough curves, would also have a more favourable business case without the expense of track electrification.
- South Wales Metro includes electrification of track with partial electrification in places covered by on-board batteries, on trains also supplied by Stadler, with tram-trains for on-street running.
- Tyne and Wear Metro's lines are not included in the map on this site, but their new Stadler trains will all be equipped with a battery, which would enable such extensions as S Hylton to Washington and Pelaw, or S Shields to Sunderland, as outlined in the Metro and Light Rail Strategy.
Hitachi recently signed an MoU with Hyperdrive for batteries to be added to Hitachi trains. Their infographic gives a range of 90km with a recharge time of 10-15 minutes, for speeds up to 100mph. The press release however targets the UK fleet of 275 trains, which seems to imply the batteries could also be fitted to the higher-speed AT-300 trains, meaning some of the current bi-modes could be converted to battery operation. A 2018 interview with Hitachi's head of engineering states that the modular design means diesel can be replaced with 'new fuel sources' as required. Hitachi reportedly stated in 2019 that it would be "relatively straightforward to fit batteries under a Class 385 [Scotrail's electric trains] to enable it to travel for 20 miles beyond the wires under battery power. If required, sufficient batteries could be fitted to extend this range to 60 miles, although this would be a much more complex modification."
Vivarail have deliberately designed their former London Underground D-Stock conversions (Class 230) to have swappable power modules. A diesel version of these is running on the Bedford-Bletchley line, and electric-battery-diesel versions are currently under test on the Bidston-Wrexham line, due to be operational there shortly, along with Chester-Crewe and Llandudno-Blaenau Ffestiniog. A pure battery-electric version was tested on the Bo'ness-Kinnell railway in 2018, and they have produced a charger, which Network Rail apparently wishes to be the standard. This could be installed in any of these Welsh lines to enable them to be run purely on battery power. They claim 1MW in 8 minutes, enough for 60 or more miles (say, 100km); the batteries are supplied by Hoppecke. Vivarail now also offer their traction package for use on other trains, claiming up to 100 miles (160km) between charges, with charge times of 10 minutes. They also say that batteries can be leased, i.e. contractually separated from the train.
Porterbrook announced their BatteryFLEX conversion of a Siemens Desiro Class 350/2 demonstrator in 2018, but this does not seem to have progressed further.
- Alstom Breeze July 2020 - adding hydrogen to Class 321 electric train, designated Class 600, £1m investment, could be in service in 2024. See 1-hour Rail Natter discussion with Mike Muldoon of Alstom UK, April 2020.
- Porterbrook and the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) have developed the Hydroflex, adding hydrogen to a Class 319 electric unit. However, at present this is just a demonstrator; government funding has been awarded (June 2020) to move this further towards commercial production.
- Brodie Engineering, Arcola Energy and the University of St Andrews are converting a Class 314 train for testing in Scotland.