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Decarbonising the UK’s Railways: will electric, hydrogen and batteries power the future of rail travel in the UK?

  • United Kingdom
  • Energy and infrastructure - Clean energy
  • Energy and infrastructure - Hydrogen
  • Transport - Rail

23-04-2021

In the context of the UK Government’s “green industrial revolution” and its ambition to “build back better” post COVID-19, as well as its target to remove all diesel-only trains from the UK rail network by 2040 and its 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target, the decarbonisation of the UK rail network seems to have risen to the top of the agenda. This provokes the question of how the UK will achieve this rail travel eco-revolution.

On 23 March 2021 the House of Commons Transport Committee published its report entitled “Trains fit for the future?” (the “Report”) . The Report’s principal focus is on moving to a decarbonised UK rail network through initiatives such as a 30-year electrification programme and investment in hydrogen and battery trains. The Report provides several recommendations to the Department for Transport (“DfT”) with regards to how decarbonisation can be achieved. Seen in conjunction with the development of multiple hydrogen-powered and battery-powered prototype and operational trains, it is possible to envisage how the decarbonised future of rail travel in the UK will look.

Electrification

The Report recommends that electrification of the railway network should be the primary method for decarbonising train travel in the UK, with support from battery and hydrogen technologies. Significantly, both battery power and hydrogen power are still in development, and are currently unsuitable for freight and high-speed services due to the high energy demands of these technologies (indeed, the Report highlights that it remains unclear as to whether battery and hydrogen will ever be suited to freight and high-speed rail).

The Report advocates the establishment of a rolling programme of electrification as soon as possible, to continue over the next 30 years. This contrasts with the current “feast and famine” approach to electrification in the UK. The Report recommends that the DfT publishes a list of “no regret” electrification schemes as identified by Network Rail, and states which of these schemes it will prioritise, along with the cost and timeline for doing so.

Hydrogen

The Report promotes the use of hydrogen powered trains to support electrification in furthering the decarbonisation of the rail network. Several hydrogen-powered prototype trains have recently been developed and tested, including the HydroFLEX train in the UK and the Mireo Plus H train in Germany. The first hydrogen passenger service, the Coradia iLint, commenced in Austria during September 2020. The success of these projects indicates that hydrogen fuelled rail travel should play an important part in lowering carbon emissions produced by UK rail travel. The Report suggests that the DfT should ensure hydrogen powered trains are included in the UK Government’s anticipated new Hydrogen Strategy.

Battery Power

Battery technology is also advocated by the Report, insofar as it should play a supporting role in the decarbonisation of the rail network alongside electrification and hydrogen. Battery power is already being harnessed in the UK. For example, the Report highlights the success of the Vivarail Class 230 battery train, which is capable of travelling up to 60 miles on a single charge. In 2021, the Flirt Akku multiple unit completed a three year research project, during which it successfully covered a distance of 185 kilometres (115 miles) without charge in Switzerland. It is clear therefore that battery power ought to have a significant role in the decarbonisation of the rail network in the UK. The Report calls on the DfT to set out how it plans to work alongside other Government departments to champion the development of a domestic battery industry, to ensure battery power can be used on UK railways (owing to ethical concerns surrounding battery production in some countries).

Conclusion

Viewed against the backdrop of the UK Government’s targets surrounding green travel and the push to encourage people out of their cars and onto public transport to help lower emissions, the Report’s recommendations seem timely. Combined with significant investment by the rail industry into developing trains and rail networks capable of running on renewable fuel sources, and with the rail industry positioning itself as a low emissions alternative to road and air travel, it appears that the ‘direction of travel’ for the UK rail industry is set firmly towards decarbonisation with the help of renewable fuel sources, chiefly electric, hydrogen and battery power. The rail industry will need to continue to embrace a move towards renewables in order to keep pace with the UK Government’s decarbonisation agenda.

How we can help

  • ES Rail Team: our team of Rail specialists is experienced in the delivery of new rail projects and major enhancements. We have recently advised a Local Authority in respect of its procurement of battery powered trams.
  • ES Infrastructure Team: the Europe team has particular experience in advising on PPP and transport projects ranging from rail and roads to airports. The Team is also based across the US, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
  • ES Hydrogen Hub: this one-stop shop provides legal insight into the key issues shaping developments along the entire hydrogen value-chain.