Nick Hughes takes a look at the steps that are being taken to meet the Government’s goal to remove diesel-only trains from the network

The vision of our rail network in 2040 is an inspiring thought. We’ll be seeing very high speed trains on new lines such as HS2, new stations and routes open, and above all else, new technology powering our trains.

For example, just imagine entering a busy station to barely hear the noise of trains waiting on the platform. A bright, open and modern public space where the air doesn’t feel dirty, a station fit for the future. Or imagine sitting on a long journey across the country, gliding along using just batteries and overhead wires.

Earlier this year the Government set off the firing gun for making this a reality, announcing all diesel only trains are to be removed from the network by 2040. This was a bold policy announcement and one which will see the UK become a world leader in green transport solutions, with rail at the centre of it. It will see rail become a clean energy industry, and allow new destinations previously cut off by a lack of electrification to experience new trains.

Whilst this vision appears a long way off, the industry is already taking important steps. Innovations abound in the UK and across the world, making this a very exciting time to be in the rolling stock business. I want set out how we can achieve 2040. There will not be a silver bullet moment. Instead, constant work and improvements along the way are needed; all the while pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

Bi-mode- the first step
As we move towards the 2040 goal, we can first take stock of our current technology which limit diesel running. Bi-mode trains are becoming the hallmark of intercity fleets, able to switch between electric and diesel power seamlessly. These trains offer the ability to open up new routes, increase capacity and cut the wait for new trains by years.

Hitachi’s bi-mode was introduced on the Great Western main line last year. As part of our Intercity Express Programme contract, we are introducing 57 bi-mode trains running between London and Wales. By having bi-mode capability, these trains are being introduced whilst electrification works take place on the route, meaning passengers can enjoy the benefits much sooner.

Much like their 2040 policy, this is an example of the Government setting an ambitious specification, in this case a light train able to run at high performance levels in both electric and diesel mode.

I believe bi-mode technology is an excellent bridging technology. Our trains cut harmful emissions (PN20) by up to 90 per cent in diesel mode compared to the trains their replacing. Modern engines, placed underneath the train, are substantially quieter, and electric power is used wherever possible, a step-change for the diesel trains of the past.

What next?
The big problem to solve now is how we completely replace diesel trains in a country where around half of track is not electrified. Luckily the UK market can look to examples overseas for inspiration. Already in service across the world we see battery and hydrogen technology harnessed for rail. However, I believe we need to look beyond rail, and learn from other sectors that have already made progress in this area.

Let’s take the automotive industry for example. It is now common to see electric cars and charging stations, unthinkable ten years ago. Here we find batteries produced for a mass market, delivering for consumers. Hitachi Automotive Systems, our sister company, have teamed up with car giant Honda to work on these technologies for road and rail, in what can be a major breakthrough for our industry. By replacing diesel engines with batteries, we can drastically reduce harmful emissions along routes, and especially at large terminus stations reliant on diesel trains.

The first step for battery introduction would be commuter trains. Batteries already have the capability to power metro services, running at the speeds and distances necessary. Around the world battery is already used on light rail such as trams. In Japan, Hitachi already have a battery powered metro train, able to run up to 50km before needing to charge.

Here we have a solution ready to go for the UK market. Charging can take place at stations or using overhead wires, with batteries able to be maintained and recycled when reaching the end of their life span. A solution ready to go, meeting the 2040 goal.

The next generation of intercity trains
In the longer-term, the industry must find a way of replacing diesel on intercity routes. Given the considerable length of journeys and the need to hit speeds of 125mph, this will be a challenge. Just as we see bi-mode technology as a bridging technology, we can apply the same method to alternative fuel sources. A simple way forward would be adding an alternative fuel source to a bi-mode, essentially transforming to a hybrid (or tri-mode)

A battery for example can be used in tandem with the diesel engine to decrease fuel consumption, thus cutting emissions. The cost of making this modification now will be off-set by decades’ worth of fuel savings, exactly the kind of forward thinking the Government is calling out for.

With batteries become smaller and smaller, we can see this application take place without adding too much weight to the train, keeping performance levels high. In fact, we trialled this on a HST in 2002, showing it can even work on the oldest of rolling stock.

All rolling stock manufactures must look to ‘future proof’ their products, ensuring modular design to alternative fuel sources can be added at a later date.

Embracing Kaizen
The roadmap to 2040 will require non-stop innovation, but I am confident the industry will achieve this. For challenges such as this, I am always reminded of the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, meaning good enough is never good enough. This should be in the inspiration for us all.

By constantly finding bridging technologies, and retrofitting our rolling stock, we can make strides towards our final goal, and make our country the world leader in clean air.

Nick Hughes is Sales Director at Hitachi Rail Europe (HRE), a global transport specialist with over 100 years of experience building pioneering trains, offering quality maintenance and developing innovative new technology. Having delivered the hugely popular Javelin HS1 fleet in advance of the 2012 London Games, Hitachi is delivering major orders for new trains, with 281 due to be in service by 2021. The first wave of new trains was made at its purpose-built factory in County Durham and entered passenger service in 2017 as part of the UK Government’s £5.7bn Intercity Express Programme.