Mike Muldoon, Head of Business Development at Alstom UK & Ireland writes about moving the rail sector more quickly to a zero-carbon and clean air future by using the tried and tested technology - hydrogen. The technology enables trains to simply emit pure water. This article originally appeared in SERA's Winter 2018 edition of New Ground.
A decade ago the UK agreed a worldwide first, the Climate Change Act. With binding targets to reduce CO2 emissions and decarbonise the UK economy, the goal has been to help reduce global warming and the UK’s contribution to CO2 emissions - our country being one of the world’s significant contributors.
The Committee on Climate Change, established as part of the Act, reports to Parliament on the progress of the country in meeting its targets. The latest report, published in June, outlined that in 2016 greenhouse gas emissions were 43 per cent below 1990 levels. The target is at least 80 per cent by 2050. The Government has set five-year ‘carbon budgets’ to 2032 outlining the reduction needed in each. While the UK met the first budget, is set to perform better in the second and the third budgets, it is not on track to meet the fourth or fifth, covering 2023-27 and 2028-32 respectively.
The report also outlines where change has taken place in different sectors. Since 1990, the energy sector has reduced emissions by over half largely arising from the growth of renewables and the reduction in use of coal. Other greenhouse contributors like waste have also seen significant reductions during the period. However, this has not been mirrored in transport. Indeed in 2015-16 transport actually saw an increase in emissions of two per cent while it is also now the largest emitter at 28 per cent of total emissions in 2017. This is unsustainable. While the energy sector receives praise for the reductions, more action is needed to tackle emissions right across the economy, in particular in transport. Rail needs to ensure its contribution to emissions, nearly one percent of the total, is eliminated, as well as be a zero-carbon alternative to the other forms of transport that contribute significantly to greenhouse emissions.
Climate change is not the only environmental concern - poor air quality has also been receiving greater attention. Two years ago, a report published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found poor air pollution contributes to 40,000 early deaths in the UK. City leaders, like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, are increasingly shining a spotlight on the dangerous levels of particulates and nitrogen oxides in our air and outlining plans to reduce this including the use of diesels, a major cause of the particulates and nitrogen oxides that contribute to poor quality air. Diesel railways are a contributory factor and there is a particular concern regarding the level of emissions found at railway stations.
Research published earlier this year for the University of Birmingham and Network Rail Strategic Partnership found high level of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter at Birmingham New Street station, one of the UK’s busiest, and in excess of EU limits, while the Rail Safety and Standards Board is studying the concentration of nitrogen oxides at London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley stations.
These two environment challenges of greenhouse emissions and air quality are red flags for the rail sector, and with the decade anniversary of the Climate Change Act, a timely reminder for action. Lasting and transformative change is needed, and it is possible.
At Alstom, operational and environmental excellence is one of the five pillars of our 2020 strategy. We are investing in the transport of the future, bringing underexploited technologies to market, and are at the forefront of meeting these challenges. We think the rail sector can move quicker to a zero-carbon and clean air future, by utilising a tried and tested technology - hydrogen. It is a technology that enables trains to emit just high quality, pure water - putting an end to the carbon footprint of CO2 emissions as well as air pollution. This is not some distant prospect – it is a viable solution now.
Our award-winning Coradia iLint has entered passenger service in Germany. It is the first operational hydrogen train in the world.
In the UK, we are working with Eversholt Rail to convert existing rolling stock (Class 321s) to hydrogen operation, re-engineering existing trains to replace existing, polluting diesels. Hydrogen trains bring not just environmental benefits - the hydrogen fleet will be one of UK’s most advanced. It will enable the smoother and quieter rides for passengers that hydrogen brings whilst also reducing noise and emissions for the neighbours of the railway.
Hydrogen trains could be operational in the UK within three to four years, just ahead of the fourth carbon budget period starting in 2023, where more rapid progress in carbon reductions is certainly required. We are pursuing multiple opportunities to deploy the trains, and the more that are adopted, the better the trajectory for the fourth budget would be.
Alstom builds trains and transport systems across the world - we see huge potential for these clean and environmentally beneficial services, and particularly here in the UK. The potential is great as nearly one third of UK trains operate on diesel. Electrification and hydrogen are both solutions, with hydrogen particularly advantageous where wires for electrification are impractical or too costly to install.
We need a national debate on how the country can get on board as rapidly as possible. The government has laid a challenge to decarbonise the rail sector by 2040 and end use of diesels. Hydrogen has the opportunity to play a leading role and it is for rail operators and train building companies alike to step up and work with government to deliver this.
There are other areas too. Transport is largely devolved in Scotland. The Scottish Government has outlined the potential for hydrogen, including for ferries - there is opportunity for rail services too.
The voices of metro-mayors and council leaders in cities, counties, and regions can also be important to support and champion clean and environmental trains serving their regions, which in turn help contribute to local air quality and carbon targets and plans. The opportunity is to change existing services to run on hydrogen as well as commence new services such as the proposed Oxford to Cambridge railway, just one of many that could benefit from hydrogen technology. Moving forward, any new railway should surely set out to be zero emission from inauguration.
While our focus at Alstom in the UK is on the rail sector, we also recognise hydrogen trains are part of a wider hydrogen economy. Alongside the transformation of rolling stock, production of hydrogen needs to be scaled up, which in turn offers more possibilities. A large plant producing hydrogen is being planned for Liverpool, which would create thousands of jobs. Other opportunities for production include tapping into spare capacity from renewables. A hydrogen future could help meet the ambitions laid out in the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy and in turn the Government’s Industrial Strategy can be harnessed to align and shape the approach across government, with the investments, policies and actions needed to realise the potential.
The prize is to enable cleaner, quieter, smother rail connections which are a critical driver of growth. The transformation and decarbonisation of train fleets also provides quality, high-skilled jobs, as we have at our facility at Widnes - the most sophisticated centre for train modernisation in the UK.
A clear commitment to a hydrogen rail transformation programme will enable the enormous potential to be realised, facilitate industry to gear up and jobs to be created, and provide an investment path for technologies to be deployed. Britain built the first railways, we have an opportunity today to lead the world into the new rail age.