Hydrogen Power for Scottish Rail in 2021?


First there was horse, and then steam followed by diesel and electric – and some of these concurrently – and now the future may be a hydrogen fuel cell powered train.  In a tenuous link back to the atomic trains proposals of the mid 20th century perhaps, the University of St Andrews is looking to design and test a power plant for rail vehicles, using hydrogen fuel cells, and fit this to an existing rail vehicle platform.

In September, the university published a ‘Prior Information Notice’, to indicate the key boundaries of this home grown project, with a power source that further reduces the rail industry’s dependence on fossil fuels for traction.  The idea itself has been around for some time – well since 2018 at least – and no doubt much earlier theoretically.

Back then Birmingham University’s Centre for Railway Research and Education  (BCRRE) began development of a project to utilise hydrogen fuel-cell technology on a railway vehicle – their test bed being a former British Rail Class 319 multiple unit. British Rail Engineering Ltd. originally built these electric multiple units, from 1987 onwards, and after privatisation, they were rented by various train operating companies.  A number of the class were modified, upgraded in various ways, including a number that were converted to bi-mode units in 2016.

Back in 2018, BCRRE demonstrated a 10 ¼ ins gauge locomotive “Hydrogen Hero” at the Quinton Rail Technology Centre, in Warwickshire, and in partnership with Porterbrook Leasing the Birmingham team went on to design and demonstrate the ‘HydroFLEX’ demonstrator.  This was based on Class 319 No. 319001 from Porterbrook, and successfully demonstrated at Quinton in June 2019.  Mainline testing followed, and the “HydroFLEX” project was awarded a £400,000 funding grant from a £9.4 million fund for innovative projects this month to develop the final, detailed design for the world’s first bi-mode electric hydrogen train.

The British are coming – Class 319 converted to hydrogen fuel cell operation – the ‘HydroFLEX’ – and one of many innovative ideas from Birmingham Centre for Rail Research and Education (BCRRE)

But neither St Andrews, nor Birmingham is alone in this work – the development of ever greener rail operations – the first commercial hydrogen powered train began working in September 2018, and comes from the Alstom stable.  In fact, Alstom’s project was launched back in 2016, when the Coradia iLint appeared at InnoTrans 2016 in Berlin, as the first CO2 emission free regional train, based on hydrogen technology.  In 2017 they had plans to bring the iLint to the UK, in partnership with another of the rolling stock leasing companies – Eversholt.  The Alstom Coradia iLint project was funded by the German Government too, in a similar way to the UK, using an innovative technology funding programme.

The Alstom design is already being set to work commercially in other countries too, since on 11th September this year (2020), Austrian Railways began regular passenger services with the iLint, following its unveiling in Vienna.  In addition, the Netherlands, France and Italy are also interested in the technology of the Coradia iLint – so perhaps the UK needs to get a move on to catch up with this particular ‘green drive’.

The Alstom iLint
Alstom iLint in service with Austrian Federal Railways (OBB)

Back in the early months of 2019, Alstom had produced a model of their proposals for the UK at Railtex, in the shape of a Class 321 multiple unit, and plans were in hand to refit 100 of the existing trains to fuel cell operation by 2021. The UK offering from Alstom was codenamed ‘Breeze’.  Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the Eversholt Rail-Alstom proposal, announced in July 2020, is aimed at fast tracking the adoption of hydrogen powered trains in the UK, with conversion of these 4-car trains carried out at the company’s new Widnes site.  Overall, just as the other projects, this innovative approach is being developed and deployed to meet the Government’s need to decarbonise the rail industry.

This £1 million investment from Alstom and Eversholt Rail will deliver new 600 Class multiple units, and is intended to underpin other initiatives in the hydrogen sector – there are now a few of these in the pipeline. 

For the UK, Alstom offered up a vision of the future back in 2019, with this ‘Breeze’ prototype, modelled on the Class 321 platform. Now it looks like there will be a large number of these running on UK rails in the next year or two.

However, as we all know now, there has been something of a hiatus in activity driven largely by the dreadful impact of Covid-19, but the future has to see a reduction in the use of non-diesel traction across the country, and the signs are still encouraging.

Hopefully, if the ‘Prior Information Notice’ from St Andrews University in Scotland is anything to go by, there will be a growing number of similar projects to drive down the UK’s CO2 output over the coming months and years.  The purpose of this particular work is for the design, installation and demonstration of a ‘first generation drivetrain’.  It is intended that this would initially be at the Bo’Ness and Kinneil heritage railway line, or elsewhere, off the Network Rail infrastructure in Scotland. 

The latest UK project will convert an old, 1979 3-car emu design, the Class 314, to provide a demonstrator platform for this new power/drive train technology, and provide another example of the rapidly growing work to de-carbonise the rail industry. 

Will it differ in ways that are different to the existing technology?  Will this be able to be fitted retrospectively to existing rolling stock – extending the life of rolling stock, and avoiding expensive capital outlay – or will the UK have two competing hydrogen trains in England and Scotland?   On top of that, Vivarail are also planning to develop a fuel cell powered train ( https://vivarail.co.uk/hydrogen-report-in-todays-times/), hard on the heels of the conversion of ex London Transport stock to battery operation for secondary services.

The next year or two could be very interesting.

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