Start soon, says Mr Haines. And we agree!

ANDREW Haines, Chief Executive of Network Rail, has said, in a RAIL magazine interview, that his pitch to government on decarbonisation is “start soon and start progressively” (RAIL 904, 6-19 May 2020). We agree! The case is building for a rolling programme of electrification. If rail is to become zero-carbon as part of a wider agenda to stop all transport from polluting the atmosphere and fuelling global heating that can only mean electrification of all strategic routes. Including our Calder Valley line as top scheme of the March 2015 task force report Northern Sparks.

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The Calder Valley Line links with electric railways at Leeds and Manchester. Most (we still hope for all) of the Huddersfield route is expected to be electrified as part of the TransPennine Route Upgrade. It makes no sense for our line to be an unelectrified island.

The Network Rail boss is positive, but cautious. By “start progressively” he is saying it is unrealistic to “unlock” too many electrification schemes simultaneously because “We won’t have the capacity, and we’ll end up dropping a few balls and knock the cause back.” Value for money has to be demonstrated, more cost-effective electrification methods will have to be found, but there is confidence that new methods for bridge clearances and other obstacles will deliver “more creditable and palatable costs”.

We can not disagree with that. But what could be better value for money than creating a transport system that stops burning carbon and starts to fight the climate emergency? The emergency that will still be there when we have got through the present pandemic. The Rail Industry Association and others have already set out evidence that a rolling programme will reduce the costs substantially, and that decarbonisation means electrification as the only solution for strategic routes. On 26 March the DfT published its plan for a plan, Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, and in the preface minister Grant Shapps says “Climate change is the most pressing environmental challenge of our time”. The plan itself is promised for later this year, as we emerge from Covid-19 it could hardly be more timely. Let the promise be kept.

RAIL 904’s 2-page spread with Haines (there’s another 8 pages in issue 905) also covers capacity. Haines says projects should go ahead: “The need… will be there and all this crisis may have done is bought us a few years of time.” London’s Crossrail 2 is mentioned (surprise, surprise), but also the TransPennine Route Upgrade (TRU), awaiting Treasury approval and needing to keep momentum. The other big need is of course Manchester, where lack of capacity on the Castlefield route through Oxford Road and Piccadilly is at present preventing through services from the Calder Valley to the south side of the city and to the airport. If we are to have a few years where rail travel is reduce, that could be an opportunity to get on with some of this work.

Momentum means not just getting one project approved but moving on to the next and the next, retaining skilled engineers, building experience, saving costs. The 2015 task force report “Northern Sparks” is still valid. The Electric Railway Charter says it should beget a programme across our sub-nation. As soon as we’ve got TRU done on Huddersfield line, let’s see the teams moving to the Calder Valley, which was (no apology for reminder), the task force’s top-scoring project out of 12 recommended for an initial five-year plan. Andrew Haines clearly believes in caution, but he tells RAIL magazine: “We have to be bolder about demonstrating what electrification can do… not just about decarbonisation of railways it’s part of decarbonisation of the economy, because it makes the railway more attractive. A growth strategy, not just a spend strategy.”

A strategic route that serves communities, our line is an ideal case for a modern railway that will provide a sustainable alternative, encouraging locals to make trains their own, promoting culture, leisure, and sociability, not just for work and the big cities. See also HADRAG’s response to the NIC .

Government needs to kick-start a “rolling programme” of rail electrification, say business, passenger, freight, and community groups

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The Rail Industry Association has written to the Government this week calling for a rolling programme of electrification. Here’s their press release, and their letter. Let’s hope they remember the Northern Sparks report that came out just about 5 years ago from the all-party, professionally supported Northern Electrification Task Force. It may have been sat on by the Department for Transport under three different Secretaries of State, but that report is still valid. It calls for most lines in Northern England to be wired with 12 schemes in an initial 5-year plan. The report ranked schemes on economic, operational and environmental criteria. Top-ranked scheme was the full Calder Valley Line, Leeds to Manchester and Preston via both Bradford and Brighouse. See also the Charter’s new year 2020 update .

Electrification Update New Year 2020

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New electric train run by TransPennine Express at Liverpool. It has to be a bimode (with climate-damaging diesel engines) because much of the route across the Pennines to York is not electrified. The Department for Transport are still saying the TransPennine Route Upgrade will include only limited electrification with Stalybridge-Huddersfield and much of Leeds-York left unwired. But, we understand, Network Rail are under instructions to keep planning for the whole route. Timescale is still unclear.  We say let’s just do it, and then get in with the Calder Valley Line in a rolling programme across the North.

TRANSPORT SCOTLAND is now talking about electrifying the lines connecting all seven of Scotland’s cities. Already, Edinburgh and Glasgow are linked by four rail routes, all four of them now electrified, and wires extend to Stirling. In an interview with RAIL magazine Transport Scotland’s director of rail Bill Reeve said “the working assumption” would be electrification to Perth, Dundee, Inverness and Aberdeen. Worth adding here that the largest of these cities, Aberdeen has a population (228,000) only slightly greater than that of Pennine districts such as Rochdale or Calderdale. So why is rail electrification in the North of England lagging?

Back in August the Electric Railway Charter wrote to Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP when he was still fairly new in the job of Secretary of State for Transport. We made the argument for restarting a rolling programme. A reply from the Department for Transport (DfT) felt very much like a standard answer to letters raising similar points. The DfT says policy is “that rail investment decisions are based on assessments of value for money and passenger and freight benefits [with] enhancements based on the needs they are fulfilling, rather the methods of fulfilment.” They are “committed to electrification where it delivers benefits for passengers and value for money”. What about where it offers the best way of rail playing its part in the battle against climate crisis? There was no mention at this point of the climate benefits of decarbonisation, although there was discussion of air quality and introduction of “progressively more stringent EU standards to drive down emissions from new rail engines” with the aim of a 90% reduction in particulates. That’s good for the quality of the air we breathe, but unfortunately even clean hydrocarbon fuelled engines emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

The final paragraph says “Our work to improve air quality sits alongside our plans to decarbonise the rail network,” and restates the “ambition to remove all diesel-only trains by 2040”. Note, just “diesel-only”. There is the truism that “since 2010 we have delivered 25 times more route miles of electrification than was delivered between 1997 and 2010”. So, when was that wiring first planned, and where are the plans now for now for the next ten years of electrification of lines such as ours? Serious cost savings are now predicted with a 10-year rolling programme, teams retaining skills moving on to the next project. Finishing the Huddersfield line then moving on to the Calder Valley.

Also in an open letter to Grant Shapps, David Shirres, editor of Rail Engineer magazine showed “how and why electrification is, for almost all rail traffic the only long term decarbonisation option”. His September magazine was themed “achieving zero carbon, leading with “Electrify everything”. https://www.railengineer.co.uk/2019/08/28/rail-engineer-aug-sep-2019-decarbonisation-achieving-net-zero-olert-overhead-monitoring-electrifying-innovation-better-by-design/

Causes for hope? In October the government launched a “ground-breaking plan to achieve net zero emissions across every single mode of transport”. The plan should be ready for action this year; it surely must have substance and can not be delayed (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-to-go-further-and-faster-to-tackle-climate-change). During the election campaign Boris Johnson hinted in Derby that he might reinstate the full Midland Main Line wiring project.

There continues to be much interest in hydrogen (H2) but let’s not forget that producing the gas (whether from electrolysis of water or from reforming of methane), transporting it, and then using fuel cells to convert its energy back to electricity is highly inefficient, with well over half the total energy wasted. And making hydrogen from hydrocarbons like methane releases carbon dioxide as a by-product. The H2-enthusiasts’ answer is “CCS”: carbon (dioxide) capture and storage, requiring a whole infrastructure yet to be developed. Hydrogen may have a role particularly in places such as the Tees valley where a supply is available from existing industry, but electric railways are tried and tested technology that we should be expanding now.

Battery technology will continue to develop. A recent report by Norwegian railways recommended batteries plus partial electrification to replace diesels. Norway already has 60% of rail lines electrified, compared with less than 40% in the UK (https://www.statista.com/statistics/451522/share-of-the-rail-network-which-is-electrified-in-europe/).

Nearer home, Vivarail, the company repurposing former London Underground stock, has developed a battery version of its “D-train” that could work for some currently diesel branch lines. A range of up to 60 miles is predicted and, crucially, a quick charging bank enables a full charge in 10 minutes between trips.

This all helps towards the essential goal of getting rid of diesels. But it certainly does not remove the need for full electrification of strategic routes like our Calder Valley Line.

Recently David Brown, managing director of Northern, told RAIL magazine “We would like to see additional electrification from Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge or Rochdale.” Such a modest proposal should be just the start. 

 

Charter tells government: time to get on with wiring programme

 

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Electric trains at Leeds. The Electric Railway Charter has asked Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps to instigate a rolling programme of electrification including the Northern Electrification Task Force programme (March 2015) that ranked the Calder Valley Line as top scheme. 

 

In July the new prime minister Boris Johnson spoke in Manchester and made a commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail. NPR is centred on a proposed high speed line (let’s call it “HS3”) between Leeds and Manchester, much of it in tunnel, and probably serving just one intermediate station in the city of Bradford. The timescale for NPR remains unclear. It is certainly more than a decade away, possible two decades. If and when it is built it is difficult to see how it will benefit communities in the large towns and smaller communities on the Calder Valley Line. People in those communities – present rail passengers, and also others who would use the train if only the service were better – can not wait for a high speed line in 15 or 20 years time that may by-pass them anyway with trains in a tunnel beneath their feet.

In August, the government announced a review of HS2, the high speed line between London, Birmingham an the North. Could HS2 be cancelled (even though work it the first hase has started)? Could the building costs saved be spent instead on bringing forward the benefits of NPR/HS3 and, more important transforming travel for people in those communities between the big cities?

Meanwhile, we have the climate emergency, continuing and worsening unless the world takes concerted action. Transport (among other sectors) has to decarbonise. And that includes rail. As the Charter said when we launched last year, what’s the point of driving your electric car to the station if your train is still a dirty diesel?

For strategic routes including the Calder Valley Line decarbonisation must mean electrification. Battery trains or hydrogen trains might work for branch lines where the trains run relatively infrequently at relatively low speed but routes like ours with lots of stops and targets to cut journey times need proper, full wiring. That’s what the rail industry and engineering bodies have been saying. And that’s what the Electric Railway Charter says in an open letter sent recently to the new Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps. We can not wait for experiments with hydrogen or other ways of supplying traction energy that have self-evident limitations. We want Mr Shapps to get a rolling programme of wiring on track. Here’s the text of our letter:

Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Transport,

Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Rd, LONDON, SW1P 4DR

19 August 2019

Dear Secretary of State,

The Electric Railway Charter is a campaign founded last year by four rail user groups on the Calder Valley Line supported by the Yorkshire and North West branches of Railfuture. We seek implementation of the recommendations of the Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) which reported in March 2015. Our Calder Valley Line was top-ranked scheme in the NETF list of lines required to be electrified.

Our groups strongly welcome the commitments made in the Prime Minister’s speech in Manchester (July) to investment in rail in the North. We welcome the suggestion that there should be a strong local input into decisions and look forward to seeing more detailed proposals in the autumn, but have three concerns:

  • Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), including “HS3”, may be up to two decades in coming to fruition, during which time there will be a continuing urgent need for improvement to existing lines. This must include electrification as the best means of both modernising and decarbonising operation of strategic routes with frequent services.
  • Planning and building “HS3” may divert resources from the need to improve existing routes.
  • When it is eventually realised, the new line with only one stop (Bradford) between Leeds and Manchester may only indirectly benefit users of local stations, unless it is built with intermediate railway junctions in Bradford allowing through running to existing routes.

In pursuit of that urgent need (a) above, we are writing to ask you: to re-start a rolling programme of railway electrification, including the programme recommended by the Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) in its “Electric Sparks” report (March 2015). The following points are relevant:

  • Rail must play a full role in the commitment to zero-carbon by 2050 with Britain leading the way. Latest climate reports suggest this deadline should if anything be brought forward. We lag on railway electrification with a stop-start approach historically compared with other countries.
  • We have surely moved on since decisions two or more years ago to cancel or limit the scope of various wiring schemes. Reports (referenced at end) from inter alia the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), the Rail Industry Association and RSSB support the view that a 10-year programme of electrification would give major cost reductions. This would be achieved by maintaining and developing skills, and using innovative, smart engineering approaches.
  • Such innovative engineering (for example making it easier to wire under bridges and tunnels) and high-quality project management should also make projects less disruptive.
  • Alternative energy pathways including batteries and sustainable hydrogen (manufactured without releasing net CO2 as by-product) may have application on less heavily used and lower speed branch lines. But strategic routes including the Calder Valley, with frequent services, frequent stops and a need to improve journey times, must have full electrification. We believe this is made clear in the recent reports. The IMechE report on The Future for Hydrogen Trains in the UK made three headline recommendations, No. 1 of which was to reverse the cancellation by UK Government of electrification programmes. We surely do not have time to keep proven electrification on hold pending experiments with “alternative fuels” that have self-evident limitations.
  • A continuing electrification programme would allow existing, surplus serviceable electric trains “cascaded” by new train operators to be used on newly electrified routes.

On economic, business and environmental criteria, the 2015 NETF “Electric Sparks” report ranked the “full” Calder Valley Line (Leeds to both Manchester and Preston) at the top of a list of 12 schemes recommended for an initial 5-year plan. Lack of progress led us to launch the Electric Railway Charter. We believe:

  • Wiring the CVL would logically follow the TransPennine Route Upgrade (TRU) on the Huddersfield line. We await full details of TRU but hope that now-feasible cost savings will allow full rather than gapped electrification resulting in a “green”, energy-efficient, high-performance railway that will cut Leeds-Manchester journey times to 40 minutes long before NPR’s 30-minute promise can possibly materialise.
  • Following TRU without pause, Calder Valley electrification (as specified by NETF) would benefit the economies of a large number of major towns and smaller communities along the route through Bradford, Calderdale, Rochdale and East Lancashire.
  • Whilst we look forward to any potential benefits of new high-speed routes as part of NPR in the long term, the urgent need is to continue modernisation of our existing routes and deliver the “Northern Sparks” promise to benefit travellers sooner.

Our groups look forward to receiving your comments, and trust the Government will shortly move forward in commitment to railway electrification.

Yours sincerely,

J Stephen Waring, Chair, Halifax & District Rail Action Group; Electric Railway Charter joint coordinator

with Electric Railway Charter partners:

Richard Lysons, Electric Railway Charter joint coordinator (Littleborough)

Richard Greenwood, Chair, STORM (Support the Oldham-Rochdale-Manchester rail line)

Nina Smith, Chair, Upper Calder Valley Renaissance Sustainable Transport Group

(Hebden Bridge and Todmorden)

James Vasey, Chair, Bradford Rail Users Group

References:

www.electriccharter.wordpress.com .

https://www.imeche.org/policy-and-press/reports/detail/the-future-for-hydrogen-trains-in-the-uk ,

https://www.riagb.org.uk/RIA/Newsroom/Stories/Electrification_Cost_Challenge_Report.aspx ,

https://www.rssb.co.uk/Insights-and-News/Latest-Updates/Railways-can-boost-UK-becoming-net-zero-carbon-by-2050

 

Charter update March: rail industry could halve wiring costs with rolling programme

UK rail electrification costs could be cut by 33% to 50% with the help of a 10-year rolling programme where engineers move on from scheme to scheme, maintaining expertise and using innovative technology. Strengthening the argument of our February update, this is pretty much what the Electric Railway Charter has argued all along. Now it is backed up with data and evidence of good practice in new a report from the Rail Industry Association (RIA).

The RIA’s Electrification Cost Challenge report cites examples from the UK and internationally. It shows how high costs seen on recent projects, including the Great Western Electrification Programme, can be avoided in the future. It suggests that significant increases in cost on some past projects like Great Western should be a one-off, caused by an unrealistic programme of work, unpreparedness in using novel technologies resulting in poor productivity and a ‘feast and famine’ electrification policy. In other words failure was due to loss of a skill after a long period when little electrification had been done.

Examples of good practice come not just from overseas. Right on our doorstep the Scottish Government has pursued a successful rolling programme of electrification. The Airdrie-Bathgate-Edinburgh scheme was on time and on budget. Some schemes went over budget but overall the trend has been to reduce costs. With a logical network approach the central Scotland programme covers both main lines and branches – from the Edinburgh-Glasgow inter-city routes, to the short Stirling-Alloa branch.

There are four railway routes between Scotland’s first and second cities, when they have finished wiring the Shotts line in a few weeks’ time, all four will be electrified. Meanwhile, Northern England under the rule of the Department for Transport struggles to approve full electrification of a single route between Manchester and Leeds.

But with the RIA report the challenge now is to Network Rail to electrify the complete Manchester-Huddersfield-Leeds-York route within the DfT’s budget (£2.9bn) for a gapped scheme. Taking up the RIA call for a rolling programme, next step could be a Northern rolling programme as the all-party task force recommended in 2015. The task force’s top recommendation was the full Calder Valley Line, and as Charter campaigners we say our line makes complete sense as a network scheme complementing the Huddersfield Line as an equally intensively used route.

The promise of cost reductions through a rolling programme is realistic. It strengthens the case for full electrification rather than gapped schemes that would rely on polluting, climate-damaging energy sources to bridge the gaps.

Coupled with the skills and cost-advantages of a rolling programme, better technology will play a part. Already we can point to UK examples. In Cardiff a difficult bridge over the Great Western Main Line could have cost the electrification project between £10M and £50M in terms of options for rebuilding or track lowering to provide clearance for 25kV wires. Instead the railway engineers used surge arrestors in the electrical supply and an insulated coating on the bridge at a cost of less than £1M.

The RIA cost challenge findings follow a report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers The Future for Hydrogen Trains in the UK. The IMechE makes three front-page recommendations. Recommendations 2 and 3 support development of hydrogen power and its deployment initially in areas where there is a significant hydrogen production industry. But recommendation number 1 is that the UK government rethinks cancellation of electrification schemes, and “moves forward with a more innovative, and long-term approach electrification rolling programme, to create skills and careers, develop supply chains, and work with existing rail networks to manage projects”.

The Electric Railway Charter calls on politicians at all levels to take up the recommendations of these reports and get on with creating a modern and sustainable North of England railway. – JSW

Themes in his blog are explored further by David Shirres in an article Relearning Electrification in the March 2019 issue of Rail Engineer magazine.

Update Feb’19: No excuses – give us electric trains!

THE Electric Railway Charter is for modern, reliable trains, supporting a healthy

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Sign Calderdale’s petition! The neon heart image is from Calderdale Council’s #electricvalley campaign calling for electrification of the Calder Valley Line. The council has launched a petition on Change.org. For more information and a link to support and sign use the hashtag #electricvalley or go straight to Change.org here.

environment, action against climate change, and good growth. A clean, energy efficient high-performance electric railway will encourage modal shift from congested roads in a “green sparks effect”. Wiring costs are predicted to fall significantly, strengthening the case for full rather than gapped electrification of strategic routes, one of which the Calder Valley Line (Leeds to Manchester/Preston via Bradford/Brighouse) was top recommendation of the 2015 task force.

With costs predicted to come down and limited application for alternatives such as hydrogen trains that seem to be in vogue, we have updated our Arguments for Electrification paper. In brief, we say:

  • the aim must be a zero-carbon railway with fully electric trains.

Ideal for our line

Electric train performance is ideal for routes such the Calder Valley over Pennine gradients with frequent station stops:

  • Fast acceleration and hill-climbing are major advantages of electric traction
  • Modern electric trains are able to recover energy through electric braking making them even more “eco-friendly”.

Rolling programme, gaining skills, cutting costs

We call for a rolling programme of electrification across the North, based on the Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) recommendations in the March 2015 Northern Sparks report. Based on business, economic and environmental criteria NETF ranked the Calder Valley Line (Leeds-Bradford/Brighouse-Hebden Bridge-Manchester/Preston) as top scheme heading list of 12 lines in initial 5-year programme).

A rolling programme with effective project management will reduce costs and disruption as skills are regained and improved. New technology, innovative methods can help solve problems. Overhead line equipment (OLE) does not have to be over-engineered. It is true that recent electrification schemes suffered cost and time over-runs. Mistakes were made because a period of little or no new electrification had allowed established concentrations of engineering skill to dissipate. The Great Western electrification cost about £3.5M per single-track kilometre (s-t km). In comparison recent North West England and Scottish schemes were about £1.25M to £2.0M/s-t km, and the European norm is about €1M (£800,000)/s-t km. Modern Railways magazine columnist Roger Ford discusses these figures from the McNaughton review of electrification cost (commissioned last year by the DfT). There is strong optimism that electrification costs can be brought down through a rolling programme supported by a national centre of engineering excellence giving a specific cost of significantly under £1M per track kilometre. (FORD, Roger, in MODERN RAILWAYS, March 2019: INFORMED SOURCES e-Preview: http://live.ezezine.com/ezine/archives/759/759-2019.02.18.03.45.archive.txt). Good planning with teams moving on from project to project will also reduce disruption during the work to put up the wires.

Sustainability: zero-emissions, zero-carbon railway – the green “sparks effect”!

The Autumn 2018 special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said global society can tackle climate change, but needs to take significant action in the next 10 years. Earlier this year a Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg put powerful grown-ups to shame with her 32-hour train trip to Davos to address the great and good of global economics. Let us all be inspired. Environmentalism must take hold and those of us in the most developed countries must surely take the lead. Rail is already a relatively low-pollution, low-carbon transport mode but must keep up as road transport decarbonises. We want to attract people onto train travel and off congested, air-damaging roads. As electricity generation decarbonises so will electric railways.

Travellers will increasingly make green consumer choices. Modern trains that protect the health of people and planet are simply more attractive. This is the green “sparks effect”. And it only really works with electric trains.

So the Charter rejects the idea of continuing use of diesels or other trains using carbon-derived energy to bridge gaps left by incomplete electrification of strategic routes such as the Calder Valley Line. “Diesels” include diesel bimodes that still pollute and are even less efficient, carrying the mass of both diesel engines and electric collection equipment and transformers.  We do not want trains that still damage air quality in stations. Polluted stations like Manchester Victoria need to be made fume-free.

And we should beware false prophets preaching excuses for not getting on with electrification. Alternatives such as hydrogen trains (carrying hydrogen fuel as compressed gas which is used to generate electricity through fuel cells or through combustion and turbine) may have some application on rail. But the latest thinking is that this is likely to be limited to relatively lightly used branch lines. In a recent report The Future for Hydrogen Trains in the UK, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) warns against hydrogen being seen as a substitute for electrification. Whilst supporting hydrogen development, the IMechE’s first recommendation reads: “That the UK Government rethinks the cancellation of electrification programmes and moves forward with a more innovative, and long-term approach, electrification rolling programme, that can create skills and careers, develop supply chains, and work with existing rail networks to manage projects.”.

We should beware also claims of “zero emissions” omitting “at point of use”. Hydrogen as currently produced is effectively little lower carbon than diesel. And storing energy from electricity in hydrogen (by electrolysing water) and then returning the energy to electricity through fuels has a lower “round-trip efficiency” than storage in batteries.

TRU challenge

Network Rail’s “CP6” control period starts this April. That means the TransPennine Route Upgrade is due to start on  the Huddersfield Line. Information about the scope of TRU has continued to emerge. It seems there will be some serious capacity work on the Huddersfield-Mirfield corridor that will also help Calderdale services through Brighouse. Manchester to York will be electrified but the DfT plan and budget is for this to be significantly gapped. Our understanding is that the intention is to leave Guide Bridge/Stalybridge to Huddersfield unwired and much of Leeds- York. However, with costs coming down it seems Network Rail has been set a challenge to see if it can electrify the complete TP route within the DfT’s partial electrification budget. This would of course strengthen the case for a wider programme following TRU. Our strategic Calder Valley Line should be next on the list –  the complete route.  — JSW… 

LINKS:

 

Hydrogen dream should be treated with caution

Government and train builders seem keen to bring hydrogen trains to rail. The gas is stored compressed in tanks on the train. To power traction motors, the hydrogen is combined with oxygen from the air in fuel cells. Or the hydrogen can be burnt to drive a turbo-generator.  In either case the exhaust is steam or water. (If you like chemistry the equation is 2H2 + O­2 = 2H2O.)InnoTrans_2016_–_Alstom_iLint_with_Fuel_Cell_Batteries_(29782914176)

So… there’s no carbon in hydrogen… so hydrogen trains have got to be zero-carbon, right?

WRONG! Most current hydrogen production is by steam-reforming of methane. Natural gas (CH4) is reacted catalytically with water to give, over a two-stage process, the hydrogen you want, and – you guessed it! – carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that you definitely don’t want. Hydrogen can be zero-carbon, if generated from renewably-sourced electricity by electrolysis of water. Like electric railways electrolytic hydrogen will approach zero-carbon as electricity production is decarbonised. Other possibilities still to be proven commercially include carbon-neutral biochemical methods. Thermochemical production of hydrogen from water might become commercially feasible. But, again, where the energy comes from must be a concern. So any claim that hydrogen trains are zero-emission that should be challenged. Other questions or concerns include:

  • Safety. The high flammability of hydrogen rarely gets a mention. Is this really not a worry? Should we not be asking questions about trains with large tanks filled with compressed, easily ignited gas? What if there were a leak in a tunnel or some of our more enclosed stations? Hydrogen has a good safety record in industrial use but surely we are right to ask for reassurance about the use of the “Hindenburg gas” to fuel trains?
  • Distribution of hydrogen to fuelling points. (Or could hydrogen be generated locally at train depots using water and renewable electricity?)
  • Storage on trains and train performance. The world’s first hydrogen train, the Alstom Coradia iLint, in service in Germany, has hydrogen tanks on the roof. Alstom’s proposed “Breeze” prototype for the UK takes a former electric train, and reduces it from 4 carriages to 3 with a third of one carriage used for the large fuel tanks that don’t sit so easily on the roof within the UK loading gauge. Like the iLint, the trains will have batteries enabling energy recovery from braking. Maximum speed 140km/hr (87mph) will be less than the 100mph capability of the 321 as an electric – but yes, more than adequate for minor branches.
  • Energy efficiency of H2 storage compared with batteries. It seems the Oxenholme-Windermere “Lakes Line” will get battery-powered trains in the early 2020s. Battery storage is notably more energy-efficient than using electricity to produce hydrogen, storing it in tanks, and then getting the electricity back using fuel cells. Batteries are heavy, but battery technology will move ahead rapidly driven by demand from renewables development and (ironically) electrified road vehicles. Battery bi-modes on the Lakes Line could charge during layovers at Oxenholme on the West Coast Main Line and in service on trips to/from Manchester. This would reduce the required battery capacity. Of course, Lakes Line electrification might have been completed by now, had it not been cancelled.

More in our updated Arguments for Electrification paper (Feb’2019). Hydrogen trains may have a future on some routes, perhaps relatively lightly used branches remote from electrification; it is right to go ahead with trials. But there are a lot of unknowns. Key strategic routes such as the Calder Valley Line need full electrification and the unproven promise of hydrogen is no excuse for not getting on with the job. – JSW