UK’s first hydrogen train makes mainline debut

The UK’s first hydrogen powered train is due to begin mainline testing today (Sep 30) in Warwickshire.

UK’s first hydrogen powered train
The HydroFLEX fuel-cell powered train. Image: Birmingham University

The HydroFLEX project - developed through a collaboration between Birmingham University and industry partners - has been supported with a £750,000 grant from the Department for Transport. It follows almost two years’ development work by the university’s Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE)  and rolling stock firm Porterbrook.

The train used in the trials is a converted Class 319 dual voltage train fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell that enables it to run purely on hydrogen on non-electrified routes. Unlike diesel trains, hydrogen-powered trains do not emit harmful gases, instead using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat.

Professor Stephen Jarvis, Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Birmingham University, said: “BCRRE is setting the pace for rail innovation both in the UK and globally. The HydroFLEX project is a great example of how world-class R&D, together with the right industry partnerships, can deliver decarbonisation technologies that are both innovative and practical."

Jarvis added that the current testing paves the way for the core technology to be fitted to current in-service trains by 2023.

“Successful mainline testing is a major milestone for HydroFLEX and is a clear demonstration of the important role hydrogen has to play in the UK’s rail industry,” he said. “Through BCRRE and Porterbrook, we are looking forward to delivering this technology into the UK transport market, ensuring a cleaner future for our railways.”

The next stages of HydroFLEX are underway, with Birmingham University developing a hydrogen and battery powered module that can be fitted underneath the train, which will allow for more space for passengers in the train’s carriage.

The start of the trials coincides with the announcement by transport secretary Grant Shapps of an ambition to turn the Tees Valley in the North East of England into a hub of excellence for hydrogen transportation.

The Department for Transport has commissioned a masterplan - that will be carried out by Mott MacDonald - to understand the feasibility of the hub and how it can accelerate the UK’s ambitions in hydrogen.

Expected to be published in January, the masterplan will pave the way for exploring how green hydrogen could power buses, HGV, rail, maritime and aviation transport across the UK. The aim would then be for the region to become a global leader in industrial research on the subject of hydrogen as a fuel as well as an R&D hub for hydrogen transport more generally.

The latest announcement follows a number of recent key developments in hydrogen powered train technology. Last month, following successful trials in Germany, the Alstom developed hydrogen powered Coradia iLint made its debut on Austria’s rail network.  Meanwhile, a number of other hydrogen train projects are also underway in the UK, most notably Alstom and Eversholt Rail’s Breeze project, which is developing hydrogen trains that could be in service by 2024; and an effort led by UK rolling stock manufacturer Vivarail, which is developing a modular hydrogen train based on retired London Underground stock.