High Volume Transport

Vital transport research to ensure accessible, affordable and climate friendly transport for all.

Low income countries could be the first recipients of hydrogen-powered trains.

The latest leap forward in the green revolution of rail was unveiled at Glasgow’s COP26 summit this month with the launch of HydroFLEX, the UK’s first mainline-approved, hydrogen-powered train.

A team from the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), with industry partners Porterbrook, showcased the hydrogen fuel technology used to power HydroFLEX to demonstrate the potential of hydrogen to transform rail transport across the globe.

Of particular interest is the opportunity the HydroFlex presents for low income countries to move ahead of, or leapfrog, high income countries. It replaces the need for electric infrastructure which is expensive and scarce in many areas. Although the headline cost of hydrogen is higher than electricity, this is likely to reduce as the technology improves and when examined as a whole life cycle, the cost benefits of hydrogen improve.

Professor Clive Roberts, head of the School of Engineering at Birmingham University said: “We are already looking … at technologies, including hydrogen, that can deliver sustainable rail travel in low-income countries. As diesel is phased out across transport networks globally, we need to find new possibilities that will be cost-effective and enable low income countries to develop and adopt sustainable technologies.”

The project started in 2018 and included the installation of a hydrogen fuel cell and battery system aboard an upcycled, 30-year-old electric train, with a range of about 480 kilometres. This hydrogen-electric train – the world’s first – is capable of travelling over both electrified and unelectrified railway tracks, which will make it particularly useful to regions and routes where there is only partial or no electrification of the network.

The hydrogen fuel cells convert air into electricity and water with the batteries providing traction power to the train. By utilising green hydrogen, produced with renewable electricity, the fuel cells are emission-free and generate clean electricity to propel the train.

HydroFLEX was designed to use the hydrogen and battery capabilities as well as to draw electricity from overhead wires. At COP26 people were shown the inner workings of the hydro chamber in order to demystify the technology inside.

The side event, attended and co-hosted by HVT, comprised two short train journeys around Glasgow led by Lord Karan Bilimoria, president of the CBI and Chancellor of Birmingham University. Prof. Clive Roberts was also there, along with representatives from Siemens, Atkins, Cadent gas network and other private industry organisations.

The event took the form of a round table discussion led by Lord Bilimoria and was an opportunity for connections to be made between key stakeholders including senior representatives from Network Rail, the Department for International Trade, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Unipart Rail, Transport Scotland, World Bank, Innovate UK and the Serbian Ministry for Environmental Protection.

Cover image courtesy of @BCRRE