IMechE rail report backs hydrogen and electrification combination

A mix of hydrogen power and electrification is needed to decarbonise the rail network, according to a new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Entitled The future for hydrogen trains in the UK, the report emphasises that electrification should still be the priority for replacing diesel trains, which the government has pledged to do by 2040. But where electrification is neither economically nor technically feasible, hydrogen power should be considered as an option. The report also highlights how hydrogen power is not suitable for freight or high speed rail, due to the large amount of storage required. Rural passenger routes, however, could present a viable opportunity.

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“The government has set out plans to phase-out the use of diesel-only trains by 2040 in order to reduce carbon emissions, but less than 50 per cent of the network is electrified and the remaining half is unlikely to ever completely become so, particularly given the cancellation of three schemes in the North, the Midlands and Wales,” said Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of Engineering at IMechE.

According to the IMechE report, there are three main areas that the government should be prioritising: a revaluation of cancelled electrification schemes; development of hydrogen trains and infrastructure; and investment in hydrogen industrial clusters that could also support buses and grid decarbonisation.

“Creating hydrogen clusters, a collection of businesses associated with the hydrogen industry, around where hydrogen is produced could help local transport systems in the UK’s regions to decarbonise,” said Baxter. “Trains and buses which operate near industries where hydrogen is produced could use hydrogen as a fuel, as production, storage and refuelling would be nearby, thereby reducing fuel distribution and transport costs.”

Approximately 29 per cent of the current UK rail fleet runs on diesel, emitting high concentrations of particulate matter, which can be especially damaging to health in and around enclosed stations.

“Until recently, diesel engines were the only practicable option for self-powered rail vehicles,” said David Shirres, a member of IMechE’s Railway Division. “Yet diesel fumes in city centres are becoming increasingly unacceptable as shown by proposals for ultra low emission zones as well as the government’s call to remove diesel-only trains by 2040.”