Skip to main content

'Development and design of a narrow-gauge hydrogen-hybrid locomotive' was awarded College of Engineering and Physical Sciences Best Publication Award May 2014.

Summary by Dr Stuart Hillmansen and Dr Andreas Hoffrichter

Railways are one of the most important modes of transportation on land, with the ability to transport large numbers of passengers or freight. Currently, the energy to move trains is either provided by electricity that is provided via wayside infrastructure or through the combustion of diesel on-board the train. Electrification of railway lines requires large initial investment in infrastructure and is only economically viable on routes that have a high density of traffic such as the main trunk lines, or suburban and metro systems. In the UK about 40% of the railway network is electrified, and the majority of passenger traffic is carried on electric railways. The railway industry is committed to increase the amount of electrified lines, which will mean that the number of electric trains will increase further. However there will still be a requirement for autonomously powered trains which serve the non-electrified lines. Currently these are served by diesel-powered trains, which rely on a single fuel source, oil, release emissions at the point-of-use and produce more noise compared to electric trains. These are compelling reasons to investigate alternatives to provide traction power for trains, especially for lines where electrification is uneconomic or undesirable such as remote branch lines and routes which pass through visually sensitive areas.


The Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), conducts investigations into propulsion options for railways and the associated energy supply in its Traction Systems Group. This is coupled with state-of-the art laboratory facilities that allow empirical observations and experiments while computer simulations supplement the capabilities to encompass whole railway lines and networks. Hybrid drive systems, where a primary energy source and an energy storage device provide the power demand, can be tested in the centre’s facilities.

Hydrogen, as an energy carrier, has received a great deal of attention because it can be produced from many different feedstocks, like electricity, and therefore can provide a clean source of power with minimal local emissions, especially if a fuel cell is used. Recently the Traction Systems Group has investigated the suitability of hydrogen to operate trains. The studies included the energy supply chain and the associated carbon emissions to allow a comparison the incumbent technologies in the railway market.

In 2012, a cross-disciplinary venture between University of Birmingham’s School of Chemical Engineering, School of Metallurgy and Materials, and BCRRE, developed, designed, and constructed the UK’s first practical hydrogen-powered locomotive.

The vehicle was publically demonstrated at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) inaugural Railway Challenge, where teams have to design a locomotive to meet set specifications and achieve the best possible results in several competitions, for example, quickest uphill acceleration. Birmingham’s locomotive completed all competitions successfully, through which the proof-of-concept of a hydrogen-hybrid drive-system for railways was established. Currently, the vehicle is in its third generation with advances made in the drive-system design and simplification of the locomotive control system but the hydrogen system has not been changed significantly from the original version. The industry efforts, with substantial contribution form the Traction System Group, to develop more sustainable railway vehicles led to the inclusion of hydrogen in Britain’s Railway Technical Strategy and the group is now working with industry partners to develop a full-scale hydrogen-hybrid prototype vehicle as part of the ERDF funded HiTech Rail project.


The design process was documented in a paper published in the Journal of Rail and Rapid Transit.

A video of the operating locomotive can be found here.

More information on the BCRRE entry for the iMechE railway challenge 2014 is available here.