UK's first hydrogen train takes to the mainline marking major step towards decarbonising Britain's railways

The first ever hydrogen powered train has run on the UK mainline as part of a project being delivered in partnership with the University of Birmingham – signalling a major step forward towards the UK’s net zero targets.

The trials of the train, known as HydroFLEX , which have been supported with a £750,000 grant from the Department for Transport, follow almost two years’ development work and more than £1million of investment by both the University of Birmingham and Porterbrook.

Unlike diesel trains, hydrogen-powered trains do not emit harmful gases, instead using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat. The ground-breaking technology behind the trains will also be available by 2023 to retrofit current in-service trains to hydrogen - helping decarbonise the rail network and make rail journeys greener and more efficient.

Transport Minister Grant Schapps standing in front of HYDROFlex train Transport Minister Grant Shapps standing next to the HydroFLEX train
HydroFLEX Takes to Mainline

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who met with leading rail experts from the University of Birmingham’s Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) onsite to see first-hand HydroFLEX on the mainline, has also announced the ambition for Tees Valley to become a trailblazing Hydrogen Transport Hub. Bringing together representatives from academia, industry and government to drive forward the UK’s plans to embrace the use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel could create hundreds of jobs while seeing the region become a global leader in the green hydrogen sector. Tees Valley is perfectly placed to reap these benefits, following the development there of the world’s largest versatile hydrogen refuelling facility made possible through Government funding.

Grant Shapps, the UK’s Secretary of State for Transport, said: “As we continue on our road to a green recovery, we know that to really harness the power of transport to improve our country – and to set a global gold standard – we must truly embed change.

“That’s why I’m delighted that through our plans to build back better we are embracing the power of hydrogen and the more sustainable, greener forms of transport it will bring.”

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Drone shot of hydroflex hydrogen-powered train crossing a railway bridge

Professor Stephen Jarvis, Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham, said: “BCRRE is setting the pace for rail innovation both in the UK and globally. The HydroFLEX project is a great example of how world-class R&D, together with the right industry partnerships, can deliver decarbonisation technologies that are both innovative and practical.

“Successful mainline testing is a major milestone for HydroFLEX and is a clear demonstration of the important role hydrogen has to play in the UK’s rail industry. Through BCRRE and Porterbrook, we are looking forward to delivering this technology into the UK transport market, ensuring a cleaner future for our railways.”

To kick start the development in Tees Valley, the Department for Transport has commissioned a masterplan to understand the feasibility of the hub and how it can accelerate the UK’s ambitions in Hydrogen. The masterplan, expected to be published in January, will pave the way for exploring how green hydrogen could power buses, HGV, rail, maritime and aviation transport across the UK. The aim would then be for the region to kick on and become a global leader in industrial research on the subject of hydrogen as a fuel as well as an R&D hub for hydrogen transport more generally, attracting hundreds of jobs and boosting the local economy in the process.

Through our £23m Hydrogen for Transport Programme, the plans announced also include £6.3m of funding for a green hydrogen refuelling station and 19 hydrogen-powered refuse vehicles in Glasgow, a world-first for the size of the fleet. This will give a post-Covid boost to local economies through the creation of green jobs while also de-carbonising the transport network.

The next stages of HydroFLEX are already well underway, with the University of Birmingham developing a hydrogen and battery powered module that can be fitted underneath the train, which will allow for more space for passengers in the train’s carriage.

Mary Grant, CEO of Porterbrook, said: “Porterbrook is committed to innovation and the delivery of a carbon neutral and sustainable railway. The mainline testing of HydroFLEX achieves another important milestone on this journey.

“I’m also delighted to be able to announce our intention to start producing HydroFLEX trains, creating the world’s first electric and hydrogen powered bi-mode rolling stock, as well as generating significant opportunities for the UK supply chain.”

The department is developing even more ways to slash emissions across transport, as work to create the Transport Decarbonisation Plan continues. The plan will develop a first-of-a-kind approach to decarbonise every mode of transport and is due to be published before the end of this year.

Julian David, techUK’s CEO said:  “The announcement on the further progress of the Hydrogen for Transport Programme is a demonstration of the UK Government’s commitment to developing a hydrogen infrastructure as part of its efforts to decarbonise transport and encourage the shift to zero emission vehicles.

“With the growing demand to switch to a net zero economy, the advancement of R&D means we can further demonstrate this innovative technology for road, rail, and freight and logistics as an efficient and economic solution. techUK is excited to work together with the tech community and the Government to spearhead the market offering for green hydrogen.”

What is HydroFLEX?

The HydroFLEX project is a ground-breaking partnership between the University of Birmingham’s Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) and railway rolling stock company, Porterbrook. A UK first, its aim is to demonstrate how hydrogen could be deployed across the rail network to offer a cleaner alternative to current diesel trains.

The project involves the conversion of an existing Class 319 train, fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell, giving it the ability to run autonomously on hydrogen power on non-electrified routes.

With new funding for mainline testing recently announced, this project is a great example of what can be achieved by combining academic research, expertise and private sector know-how.

In addition to BCRRE and Porterbrook who led the initiative, HydroFLEX has been made possible by extensive collaboration across the industry, including: Chrysalis Rail for installation; Denchi Group for traction batteries; Ballard Power Systems for the fuel cell; Luxfer for hydrogen storage tanks; SNC Lavalin for design and hazard identifications; Aura for exterior livery design; and dg8 for design and engineering support

Why do we need hydrogen trains?

Transport currently accounts for around a quarter of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and the UK Government has committed to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 80%, against 1990 levels, by 2050.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is an effective alternative to diesel engines.  Potentially entirely carbon neutral in operation, they are more environmentally friendly while offering similar performance.

Meet our HydroFLEX experts

Alex Burrows 

Alex Burrows

Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education
Director of BCRRE

Alex is Director of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), part of the School of Engineering at the University of Birmingham – the largest specialist railway research, education and innovation centre in Europe.  He leads the BCRRE Enterprise Group (working alongside the Academic Group) with responsibility for leading commercial and professional services activities and building partnerships with the global rail industry.  He is also the Thematic Lead for ‘Introducing Innovation’ in the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network – a ground-breaking partnership between academia and the rail industry. 

In addition, Alex is the Managing Director of the Rail Alliance, the UK’s rail cluster with a SME Community of more than 730 member organisations and an active member of the European Rail Clusters Initiative.

Before joining the University of Birmingham in 2018, Alex was Marketing & Strategy Director at Alstom UK&I with responsibility for strategy, innovation and stakeholder engagement.  He has previously held senior roles at Atkins, the Transport Systems Catapult and Centro (the West Midlands Transport Authority).  Alex is a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Technology and a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Logistics and Transport.

Dr Stuart Hillmansen

Stuart-Hillmansen

Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education
Reader in Railway Traction Systems

Stuart Hillmansen is the academic lead for the HydroFLEX project. Over the last decade his team have led the development of Hydrogen and Fuel Cells as a propulsion technology for autonomous rail vehicles. Our 1/5 scale Hydrogen Hero train, developed to compete in the IMechE’s Railway Challenge has been pivotal in disseminating the technology. BCRRE’s partnership with Porterbrook, formalised in Innotrans 2018, then paved the way for the development of HydroFLEX. The partnership has now achieved mainline approval for this technology to operate on the GB railway network. This historic achievement provides a substantial boost towards the efforts of the industry to decarbonise.

Kevin Blacktop, Head of Project Delivery

Kevin BlacktopKevin joined the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) at the University of Birmingham in July 2018, as Head of Delivery. This role includes project management and technical input to HydroFlex, the UK’s first hydrogen train launched in July 2019.

He led the Strategic University Partnerships programme at Network Rail in the Research and Development function for 7 years and he was technical lead for the EU funded SUSTRAIL project. Prior to this role he led the development of a number of rail projects such as the extension of the Birmingham Cross City Line to Bromsgrove and the upgrade Cross City Service to Redditch as part of Network Rail Infrastructure Projects. He started his career in the automotive sector working in engine design and development, before undertaking a OEM problem resolution role.

Charlie Calvert, Lead Systems Engineer 

Charlie CalvertCharles joined the University of Birmingham 3 years ago to research hydrogen train technology. He has been involved in the HydroFLEX project from its inception two years ago in his role as the University of Birmingham's lead systems engineer. 

During this time Charles has been involved in all elements of the project including initial concept design and specification, engagement with suppliers and stakeholders and supervision of and involvement in the fitting out of the HydroFLEX train with the new hydrogen hybrid power train. 

Following the construction of the train last year, Charles has fulfilled the roles of Test Engineer supervising activity in the train's hydrochamber and overall test controller.

Peter Amor, Hydrogen Refuelling

Peter AmorPeter  started work on HydroFLEX in June 2019, assisting with the testing of the then-newly converted train. His main role at this time was refuelling, which informed a great deal of study over the next year into the logistics of supplying hydrogen powered trains on the real railway.

His other role has been to simulate hypothetical hydrogen-powered trains and to explore their practicality in the real world. This might involve conversions of existing rolling stock, or brand new trains, but there will need to be a depot infrastructure to support this, something he is taking forward into his PhD on depot infrastructure. The HydroFLEX train is a valuable resource as it allows him and other researchers to understand the process of moving from an idea to a mainline-approved final product, and provides valuable data on real-world hydrogen consumption, among other things.

Dr Jeff Allen, Control and Software Design and Implementation

jeff-allenJeff is managing director of Jeff Vehicles Ltd., a company set up to carry out consultancy in innovation in Transport and Energy, especially to promote battery and hydrogen powered vehicles. He has most recently worked with University of Birmingham and train leasing company Porterbrook on  electronic, electrical and software design for the U.K.’s first hydrogen powered train and mainline approvals.

He holds two Guinness World Records for charging time in an electric vehicle, across Britain and across Europe and he has written a popular free book “Driving an electric car”. He lectures/tutors on signalling and software topics at University of Birmingham and Glasgow Caledonian University for Institution of Railway Signal Engineers and Institution of Railway Operators degree courses.

He has won awards for Institution of Engineering and Technology papers on railway subjects. He is also a director of Vanguard Sustainable Transport Solutions.