Team shows fuel cells can be used to power UK trains

Fuel Cell Systems, working with the University of Birmingham and Hitachi Rail Europe, has completed a six-month study for the UK rail industry, which shows that hydrogen fuel cell technology can be successfully retro-fitted to extend the life of existing rolling stock. It also established that fuel cells can provide a clean alternative for the next generation of self-powered regional trains in the UK.

Funded by RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board) and Network Rail, via their innovation programme, the project demonstrated that the use of fuel cell technology could reduce journey times, eliminate emissions at the point of use and improve passenger comfort through smooth and rapid acceleration and minimal noise and vibration.

The team carried out mathematical modelling on known rail routes to ensure that the project was addressing real life applications.  Based on a study of the Norwich to Sheringham route, currently operated by Class 156 multiple units, the fuel cell achieved a 7% reduction in journey time and a 52% reduction in fuel energy consumption when compared to the original version.

Tom Sperrey, Managing Director of Fuel Cell Systems, commented, “Compared to traditional engines, fuel cell vehicles are cleaner, emitting no exhaust fumes, just a small quantity of pure water.  They are going to be a major contributor in combatting atmospheric pollution.”

Whilst electrification of the network forms a significant part of future industry plans, hydrogen fuel cell powered trains would complement this, offering an environmentally friendly solution where electrification is uneconomic or impractical.  For example, on the Valley Lines in Wales, the estimated cost of conversion to fuel cell operation is around 1/5th of the cost of electrification of the infrastructure.  Additionally, use of fuel cell trains would avoid the disruption to services caused by installation of overhead wires, or modifications to bridges and tunnels associated with full electrification.

Over the past decade, hydrogen fuel cell technology has gradually gained in popularity, from the first ever fuel cell hybrid railcar being tested in Japan in 2006, to China’s 2015 debut of a fully operational hydrogen-powered tram in Qingdao.  Most recently, the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany has announced plans to electrify its entire 1,100km railway network using hydrogen fuel cell equipment by 2025.

The technology is widely regarded as tried and tested and many believe it’s time has come as an environmentally friendly solution in the rail and other transport markets.