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Battery-powered trains: The future of railway transport

In the last year, there has been a major push towards decarbonising railway transport. 

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Opinions expressed by Digital Journal contributors are their own.

In the last year, there has been a major push towards decarbonising railway transport. 

Across the globe, the increasingly pressing concerns of humanity’s detrimental effect on climate change has led to a sort of green revolution in masses of industries. In the transport, energy and resource sectors, companies have been declaring sustainability goals and investing in greener solutions to decarbonise the production and supply chain.

Battery-electric cars and trucks are already well established transport solutions, with battery-electric power most recently being tested in airplanes, helicopters and container ships.

In the words of Hitachi Rail, “battery power is the future”. At present, it is the cleanest zero-emission solution that can effectively replace diesel and petrol-fuelled vehicles.

Now, this technology is expanding to trains.

Trains are already one of the greenest vehicles in use, both for personal travel and freight. An analysis by the American Association of Railroads has shown that if trains replaced a quarter of the trucks on the road that moved 750 miles, emissions would be cut by about 13.1 million tonnes.

Furthermore, studies predict that retrofitting existing diesel trains in the US with battery power would save around $94 billion in fuel costs in the next 24 years.

The public health benefits of using battery-powered trains have also been highlighted. According to the California Air Resources Board, current use of diesel locomotives contributes to a toxic standard of air. This is estimated to account for 1,000 premature deaths and an additional $6.5 billion in health costs each year in the US.

Thus, replacing diesel power with battery electric, or even adopting a hybrid solution, will improve air quality and public health, shrink carbon footprints, and reduce fuel, maintenance and operational costs.

The sustainable and cost-effective benefits of battery-electric trains for industrial use have been recognised by large corporations in the US and Australia, where present and developing battery technology presents a very viable, green way to power long distance transportation.

Earlier this month, Union Pacific Railroad, the second largest railroad in the US, struck a $100 million deal to acquire 20 battery-electric freight locomotives from Wabtec and Progress Rail. Operational examples already exist on tracks in the US, namely Progress Rail trains on the Pacific Harbor Line.

Governments have made significant investments into the development of these battery-electric trains, emphasising their important role in alleviating the climate crisis.

The California Air Resource Board has provided Wabtec a $22 million grant to build and test their FLXdrive locomotives, which use a combination of battery solutions and traditional diesel. The results of the tests were positive, showing that when pulling at least 430,000 pounds, a combination of a battery-electric locomotive placed between two traditional locomotives could save an average of 11% on fuel and emissions.

This is a promising start to the future of rail technology, and Wabtec has already begun working on the next generation of locomotives which could even cut emissions by 30%.

There is even the suggestion that fully automated, battery-electric trains will be possible in the future. Parallel Systems are in the process of developing trains that can self-assemble automatically, and even operate without a conductor or locomotive.

In the iron-ore rich territory of Western Australia, industry giants BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group have purchased battery-electric locomotives from Wabtec and Progress Rail to join their fleet. The shift to renewable energy in the mining and resources sector demonstrates the current mindset of companies, seeking to invest a green future economy. 

Beyond industrial use, battery-powered trains have also been utilised as a tool to make public transport even more eco-friendly.

Last September, the French locomotive manufacturer Alstom carried out its first demonstration in Chemnitz, Germany. Proving a success, the region, Central Saxony, quickly purchased 29 of the battery-powered electric trains for its network.

Following from the Alstom demonstration in Saxony, other German regions have also made the move to adopt battery-electric trains for local passenger rail transport.

Alstom and Deutsche Bahn boarded passengers on the very first approved electric train in Baden-Württemberg at the end of January, with additional tests carried out in Bavaria in early February and plans for all routes to be operational by early May.

While the current implementation of passenger trains in Germany do not make the network fully battery-powered, they are a significant and essential step towards meeting sustainability goals. Baden-Württemberg is aiming to eventually entirely electrify the state’s rail network, and Bavaria is progressively replacing diesel trains with emission-free vehicles in efforts to become fully climate neutral by 2040.

As ingenious as battery-electric trains are, there are several existing issues that have prevented them from becoming fully integrated into our transport systems.

Battery-powered trains face the same problem as battery-powered cars: a lack of charging stations.

There are several possible solutions, firstly, that charging stations can be placed anywhere along the tracks, and as freight trains already make numerous stops along their journey, these periods can be used to recharge or even completely swap out the battery.

Another solution is based on the concept of regenerative braking. This allows the energy generated from the long, heavy train travelling with gravity to be captured from the braking process. Drawing from a similar braking system already used by hybrid cars, this would work even better with trains as they pull massive amounts of weight behind them and can produce much more kinetic energy, which can then be accumulated and stored.

A 2021 trial by Wabtec showed that a battery-electric train could travel 350 miles without stopping to recharge. Through regenerative braking, the batteries recharged by 20% when rolling downhill.

Studies have also shown that despite the newness of this technology, integrating it into our current rail systems is actually rather simple and affordable.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability state that the existing electric motors in US diesel trains make them highly suited for retrofitting with battery power, and can be very quickly done, within a month. The existing infrastructure of German railways also allow the operation of battery-electric trains without any major changes.

Since 2016, Alstom has been working with the Technical University of Berlin. The research partnership works to develop, approve and operate battery-powered passenger trains, and to improve the economic viability of its implementation on mainline railways.

Significantly, they prepare recommendations on the public use of battery-powered passenger trains for politicians, operators and public authorities, a great example of how legislation can be developed in tandem with technological innovation and allows the latter to flourish.

Ultimately, battery-electric trains—both fully electric and hybrid—are a fascinating example of how modes of transport that are already considered relatively eco-friendly can always be improved. The major investments into the development of this technology we are witnessing, in various industries and so globally widespread, show how the green revolution is well and truly underway.

Mileson Qiang Guo is an entrepreneur and investor, and the founder of The Institute for Emerging Technologies and Social Impact (ITSI). He founded ITSI to foster debate and discussion about the social impact of emerging technologies amongst industry pioneers and policy leaders. The Institute aims to cultivate original research, share ideas and connect people with the shared goal of harnessing technology for the greatest social and economic benefit.

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