COP26 in Glasgow is over, but the race to decarbonise the transport sector has long been on. In this great game, the train can find its place if it manages to demonstrate its relevance.
The pressure on governments and corporations to push on with the adoption of low-carbon technology is only going to increase. In the transport sector, the urge to decarbonise is manifesting itself in an increasingly frenetic push for the roll-out of hydrogen fuel cell and battery technology to replace internal combustion in everything kind of vehicle, including aircraft. As part of its ‘Fit for 55’ package of climate legislation, the European Commission put forward several ways of boosting the use of renewable hydrogen. That has whetted the appetite of many industries, seeing the arrival of good business, notably Alstom.
Rail seems to have the great advantage that it is already partially electrified. However, 45 per cent of Europe’s rail network is not still electrified. In addition, diesel traction and high levels of noise that it causes are now become the unacceptable face of rail, in particular in the UK, Ireland, Canada and in the USA. For some local residents, it is becoming increasingly difficult to promote the train as a low-carbon alternative in such circumstances. The problem is that this message is being received 5/5 by elected politicians. At the same time, they are receiving other decarbonisation proposals, mainly from the automotive sector. Intense lobbying is trying to keep the road sector, rail’s main competitor, in the starting blocks of the decarbonised future.
Can rail stay in the race? Today, bi-mode electro-diesel and battery-electric trains are already reducing diesel operation ‘under the wires’ on partially electri ed routes, while batteries and supercapacitors are making inroads in urban rail applications. There is no doubt that the weight of the batteries, the main technical problem when adding them to an existing train, will decrease as technology improves.
The enthusiasm for hydrogen is tempered by the way the fuel is created. The process to create ‘green hydrogen’ by electrolysis can be seen as ‘a wasteful use of electricity’. According some experts, a hydrogen train uses 3.5 times as much electricity because of inefficiencies in the electrolysis process and also in the fuel cells. However, there is no doubt hydrogen will work in the future in some case.
But the decarbonisation of transport also means that the rail sector will have to work hard to accelerate its modernisation if it is to appear to be the best solution to the politicians. At present, it is bitterly obvious that every technological advance on a train is accompanied by a mountain of procedures that can sometimes slow down the progress that was hoped for. The railways are still too often presented as a dangerous tool to exploit compared to other modes. Yet how many people die on the road each year?
In addition, there are still national positions that can handicap the train. This is the case with the famous freight car brake blocks, designed to make less noise but which suddenly become a risk object in some countries. We can also expect a nice stack of procedural barriers for the future operation of the automatic coupling for freight wagons. There are many other examples of why the railways are struggling to make progress. It is 30 years since the ERTMS concept was launched. There is still a lack of hindsight to make an initial assessment of Alstom’s hydrogen trains in Germany, which were launched in 2018 thanks also to strong support from public authorities. Would this technology be viable with less subsidy? Remember the debate on wind turbines and the high subsidy of this sector compared to the expected results…
Service and infrastructure
Of course, technology will not solve all problems. Decarbonisation is also about attracting people to the train rather than letting them use a polluting mode. So we also need to invest in the service we provide to passengers, and ask them what they really want to use the train for. On-board wifi and ticketing facilities seem to top the list. Making the train journey a useful time for work is also a highly sought-after criterion, especially by customers with high purchasing power. However, ensuring an uninterrupted mobile connection on board trains brings us back to technology once again, and here too we are seeing the emergence of various solutions, unrelated to hydrogen or battery-powered trains.
Decarbonisation also means ensuring better traffic flow, which leads us to the field of infrastructure. We may not be obliged to carry out major luxury works, but in certain places, a complete reconstruction is necessary and requires significant public funds. Let’s not forget that investments that seem costly today will save us from other equally costly expenses for the next 50 years.
Last but not least, decarbonisation is about the quality of the operators who run the trains. While we can denounce the mountains of procedures, we must not forget that they have arisen as a result of sometimes serious failings on the part of some. The quality and follow-up of procedures should not be a question of money but the guiding principle for any carrier. There is no room for either technical dumping or procedural mountains, but a fair balance must be found between these two extremes.
It is all of these conditions that will make rail a solution for achieving each country’s climate objectives. Let us pray for less procedural mountains and more best practice. The train cannot be « a dangerous tool to exploit » but an exemplary decarbonisation tool.
14/11/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter
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