Shaping change: building on rail’s innovation credentials to help the UK reach net zero

David Clarke, Technical Director, Railway Industry Association | 13 May 2021

Rail is already a low carbon form of transport in the UK – contributing only 1.4 per cent to domestic transport emissions and just 0.5 per cent of the total carbon emissions. Yet, with the right decisions made this year, the industry’s environmental story can get even better and play a vital role in helping the UK reach its net zero ambitions.

Realising opportunity

As the country emerges from the pandemic, galvanised by the desire to build back better and in pursuit of a net zero strategy that should define industry development for the next three decades, now is the time to act. We need to see double the amount of electrification on the core network, and the introduction of zero carbon hydrogen and battery trains. If you think that train fleets have an average life of over three decades, the decisions that we make in 2021 will prove vital to realising this future. But, what to focus on?

In this two-part series, I’ll explore the ways in which rail can build on its significant innovation credentials to help the UK meet its climate targets. This will require vision, collaboration across the sector and learning from some of the best practice already happening in the industry’s supply chain.

Coming together on a common strategy

When Network Rail launched its Environment Sustainability Strategy in September 2020, outlining the journey to a cleaner, greener future, it put a stake in the ground for the entire railway ecosystem in the UK.

By becoming the world’s first railway to set such ambitious science-based targets - to cut carbon emissions and help limit global warming to 1.5°C - there’s a spotlight on us all to realise and inspire change within rail but also in other industries.

Importantly, the strategy also provides a robust framework the rail community can buy into – detailing four priority areas (a low-emission railway, a network resilient to climate change, improved biodiversity and minimised waste) as well as tangible steps and timings to push developments forward.

This strategy helps actualise a vision for change – one that’s being driven forward by people, processes and technology coming together to innovate.

Fuelling innovation

Three years ago, the Government announced that the UK’s railways should be free of diesel-only trains by 2040. An ambitious, necessary target if we are to hit our net zero ambitions, one that reflects the perceived time needed to make change possible. We all know that trains are relatively expensive (costing on average £1.2m per vehicle) and last for decades. But climate change will not slow to account for book-balancing, so we must find the balance between ambition and feasibility.

Fortunately, that balance is becoming increasingly viable. Innovations now allow for operators to retrofit their rolling stock with technology that minimises diesel use, enabling them to play a role in the evolution towards a zero-carbon future.

One of these is G-Volution’s dual fuel control unit, which allows existing freight and passenger trains (90% of freight trains run on diesel) to stay in service but operate with lower costs, lower carbon emissions and cleaner fuels, bringing cleaner air. The innovative technology works by lowering the volume of diesel delivered to the engine, supplementing it with secondary gaseous fuel such as hydrogen, bio-LPG or bio-natural gas. By doing so, the engine is able to reduce its carbon output whilst maintaining the same level of performance. It brings the potential to convert a majority of the current and existing UK freight and passenger trains – which represent significant carbon investment already – into cleaner, dual fuel versions within three to five years. This will help drive immediate carbon reduction efforts on our current rolling stock, while also supporting cost-effective and sustainable options for the future – including cleaner fuels which in turn allow cleaner technologies to operate alongside dual fuelling.

Elsewhere, Porterbrook and the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) have embraced hydrogen as a renewable fuel source, introducing HydroFLEX – the UK’s first hydrogen train. Whilst swapping diesel for hydrogen, HydroFLEX retains bi-mode capability to ensure it can operate without emissions on both electrified and non-electrified railway. This significant step forward helps takes us closer to a zero-carbon railway, one where highly flexible trains can operate across Britain’s rail network regardless of whether the rate of electrification improves.

Alstom and Eversholt Rail are similarly developing the Breeze, a new hydrogen train based on Alstom’s Coradia iLint project which is already in service in Hamburg, with two trains having operated over 180,000km in passenger service for nearly two years. Breeze is based on the successful Class 321 electric multiple units owned by Eversholt Rail, which operate widely in the UK but are approaching the end of their current leases and so can be made available for conversion. Breeze has been offered to several operators considering introduction of hydrogen trains and the full build project could have a first fleet in service within just three years of being ordered.

What’s next

The railway industry is responding to the climate change call to arms, and has the vision and collaboration across the supply chain to continue momentum. In the second blog, we’ll be looking at how the industry is intelligently electrifying challenging infrastructure, managing its materials to maximise their lifecycles and more.

To learn more about the role you and your organisation can play, attend the next Unlocking Innovation series taking place on 9 June.

We’re delighted to include spokespeople from all the organisations mentioned within our Ambassadors of Change series, which spotlights members of the rail community who are spearheading innovation.


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