Thirty-year-old train fuelled by hydrogen shows Cop26 the future of transport

HydroFLEX, an upcycled train with a hydrogen-fuel system, can also run on battery power and electricity

The UK's first hydrogen train departs Glasgow station for Cop26

A hydrogen train on display in Glasgow during the Cop26 Summit. Victoria Pertusa / The National
Powered by automated translation
An embedded image that relates to this article

At more than 160 kilometres per hour, the Scottish hedges are blur of green with occasional glimpse of cows munching on grass in the fields beyond.

Outwardly, there is little sight the 30-year-old, freshly painted metal carriages of the passenger train gliding along the rails in Glasgow is part of an experiment for the future of travel. But in the silence on board, it is possible to discern the difference of a vehicle powered by ultra-clean hydrogen.

The hydrogen service at Cop26 was part of the UK government's attempt to show how it aims to decarbonise the rail sector by 2050.

Created by UK leasing firm Porterbrook and the University of Birmingham, the HydroFLEX train — the UK’s first hydrogen-ready passenger train — made its debut trip from Glasgow Central station on Tuesday, about a kilometre from the climate summit.

The £8.4 million project, started in 2018, included the installation of a hydrogen fuel system aboard an upcycled, 30-year-old train, which has a range of about 480 kilometres.

The train, which has a top speed of about 160 kilometres per hour, can also run on electricity and battery power — making it the world’s first train to be able to run on three different energy sources.

“We started looking at hydrogen because of the climate change emergency and the need to decarbonise the rail industry,” Helen Simpson, the innovation and projects director at Porterbrook, told The National.

“So, we’ve fitted out a 30-year-old train with hydrogen technology to showcase it to the rail industry and the decision makers in government to show that it is possible to build a hydrogen powered train — the technology exists.”

While large sections of the UK’s rail system are already powered by electricity, making it a much greener way to travel than driving, Ms Simpson said some trains in remoter parts of the UK are not electrified and still run on diesel.

“Those trains are on lower frequency services or routes, where it's going to take a long time to electrify those routes. And the question then becomes what do we do in the meantime to try and work towards net carbon zero — and hydrogen has a part to play in that,” she said.

The HydroFLEX event comes as Cop26 delegates prepare for Transport Day on Wednesday, when governments will attempt to build consensus on the transition to zero-emission vehicles.

Mohamed Mezghani, director general of International Association of Public Transport, said the HydroFLEX train is a key milestone because it will “contribute enormously to reducing CO2 emissions” in the transport sector.

“Rail transport is very important in the fight against climate change, because it emits and consumes about 10 times less CO2 emissions than private cars,” he said.

“That's why it's important to develop and promote rail transport and public transport in general, because it is more socially inclusive, it is good for health, it is good for the environment and for the economy. So, let's move people instead of moving cars.”

Rail is a low-carbon form of transport, with passenger and freight services responsible for only 1.4 per cent of the UK’s domestic transport emissions in 2018.

To fuel the train, Porterbrook built 36 high-pressure tanks, which contain up to 277 kilograms of hydrogen fuel.

A regulator then reduces this pressure while pipework feeds the hydrogen into the fuel cells, where a chemical process converts the hydrogen and oxygen from the air to generate clean electricity. The only waste product is pure water.

A separate control system ensures the correct amount of power is delivered at exactly the right moment, while a lithium ion battery provides and stores additional energy when needed. Electricity from the fuel cells and battery power the electric motors which then propel the train forward.

Mr Mezghani said innovations such as HydroFLEX can play a significant role in encouraging a shift from road transport to rail and enabling active forms of travel, such as walking and cycling.

This is a message Mr Mezghani plans to deliver to policymakers in a series of high-level meetings at Cop26, where he will show how public transport is part of the solution to the climate crisis.

“Public transport must be included in all national plans because now, only 30 per cent of the countries have public transport in their plans,” he said.

“Technology will not solve it all. It's good to have new technology; electrification is an excellent approach but replacing existing cars with electric cars will not solve the congestion and will not solve road safety.

“So, it's important that we don't only rely on energy; we should really focus on the needs of people and cities and not just the technology.”

Mr Mezghani said hydrogen has a bright future, with more pilot projects such as HydroFLEX needed to reduce the cost of the renewable energy source and make it a viable solution for all rail transport.

However, to ensure hydrogen use in the rail sector becomes commonplace, Mr Mezghani said the right infrastructure to develop and use hydrogen trains needs to be put in place, as the hydrogen supply is the main challenge.

“It’s not just a transport issue; it is an industrial issue and an energy-related issue,” he said.

With trains already energy efficient, adopting renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and others will boost the sector’s efficiency even more, Mr Mezghani added.

Network Rail’s 2020 traction decarbonisation plan estimates that hydrogen will be required on about 6 per cent of the rail network, with the north of Scotland, Teesside and East Anglia identified as areas where hydrogen traction could be rolled out.

Ms Simpson said that more agile small businesses are entering the hydrogen market and “that supply chain is now becoming more and more able to deliver to the rail industry as well".

“So, we see fuel cells happening in other sectors and although rail has specific standard and safety requirements, they're not dissimilar from other sectors,” she said.

Updated: November 09, 2021, 7:10 PM