HydroFLEX train heralds major step towards railway decarbonisation

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The HydroFLEX train is the first GB mainline approved railway vehicle to use Hydrogen as its primary fuel

Undoubtedly, the primary driver for railway decarbonisation is the need to demonstrate the industry’s commitment to the Government’s net zero by 2050.  These laws, passed in June 2019 will mean that the UK will ends it contribution to global warming by 2050. However, perhaps there is a more crucial underlying driver for the rail industry, and that is its very survival.  The railway system operating on GBs mainline today is a complex mix of historic and state of the art technology, and the renewal time for some of the infrastructure and engineering systems is well over 100 years.  Technological renewal is therefore normally a long process.

The modern railway is competing with much more agile sectors, such as the automotive, and now finally the online world of teams and zoom meetings now have the means to connect people seamlessly throughout the planet, a function once only achieved through physically transporting people vast distances. 

But, by no means can all economic activity be supported by online services, and land based transport is likely to recover in the medium term, and there remains the requirement to decarbonise transport. Critically, if rail fails to keep pace with other decarbonised modes, the climate conscious, and therefore majority of passengers are likely to take more sustainable modes, threatening the very existence of the railway.

The HydroFLEX train is the first GB mainline approved railway vehicle to use Hydrogen as its primary fuel.  This major milestone has paved the way for the whole industry to accelerate programme of decarbonisation, with several other companies and partnerships already committed to developing their own Hydrogen powered vehicles. 

The HydroFLEX was converted from a former 4 car electric multiple unit owned by Porterbrook.  The partnership between Porterbrook and the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education was formalised in September 2018 where we agreed on the commitment to develop the UK’s first hydrogen fuelled train. 

A short 2 years later and the partnership delivered a fully approved vehicle capable of running on the mainline.  Teamwork combined the outstanding project management, procurement, and “” attitude of Porterbrook with the visionary and technical excellence of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) team do produce HydroFLEX. 

The hydrogen which can be used to provide a fuel for HydroFLEX can be produced through a variety of means, and ultimately from net zero electricity.  This means that it is possible to achieve zero carbon transport right now, and within the next 2 years the team are well positioned to deploy a first fleet of trains operating using hydrogen produced through renewable electricity.

The recently published Network Rail study, traction network decarbonisation strategy (TDNS), outlines the vision of the network operator to meet the Government’s 2050 target.  The solutions include extensive electrification, battery powered trains and hydrogen which will be the only propulsion technologies operating on the mainline by 2050. 

Electrification, battery and hydrogen, are complementary technologies, but now there will be a technological arms race to develop each, with the ultimate mix of battery, hydrogen and electrification to be determined by the success of each.  Our view at BCRRE is that the rapid development of hydrogen will mean that the performance of the future hydrogen fuelled rail vehicles will mean ambition for such extensive electrification could in fact be reduced, and a decarbonised railway achieved well before 2050.

Stuart Hillmansen is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical Energy Systems, and Head of the Traction Research Group within the School of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering. The group are part of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education.