One thing we have learnt this week – battery powered trains

intercity_rossoSearch the internet for “battery powered trains” and you get a whole pile of people trying to sell you children’s toys.  But this story is not about toys but real battery powered trains.  Bombardier the only manufacturer of trains in the UK at the moment (although Hitachi are building a factory in NE England) are experimenting on battery powered trains with the aid of a UK government grant.

The UK has some the lowest percentage of railway electrification in Europe but this is changing with another 1500 miles due to be electrified (excluding HS2).  Electrification in the UK got going in a big way with the DC third rail network in SE England and one or two other places.  By and large the one or two other places such as bits of track in Liverpool got converted to standard AC overhead wiring but the third rail is still a huge part of the UK’s electrification system.  In the 1960’s modern electrification got under-way with the West Coast main line from London to Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool.  In the 1980’s the East Coast Main line was electrified from London to Edinburgh and Leeds. Other electrification was carried out from London to East Anglia.  There is a theme emerging here all lines radiate to London.  This makes economic sense and is largely true although the West Coast electrification allowed a most local commuter routes in Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow to electrified.

There is a move to electric trains, for a variety of reasons they are quieter, cheaper to run as the oil price has soared, more reliable, easier to source and faster.  New less London centric routes due to be electrified include a number in the North of England across the Pennines and around Manchester and Leeds, also branches off the West and East coast main lines to Blackpool and Hull.  Glasgow/Edinburgh via Bathgate has been reopened and electrified and Birmingham to Southampton via Oxford will be electrified.  London centric routes that will be electrified include London, Bristol to Swansea (with all the south valley commuter branches electrified) and London to Sheffield.  Plus some other short routes and extensions.

All in all a huge programme.  But even this leaves many routes incomplete.  So for example whilst London Bristol will go electric the route onto Cornwall will not be.   So trains will run the first hundred miles or so to Bristol under the wires, then on as diesels to Cornwall.  This is crazy and where battery powered trains could come in.  Its easy to imagine a train that charges as it runs from the wires on some parts of routes and then continues on battery power the rest of the way.  Even if couldn’t return it could be recharged in a siding first.  This is the advantage of electricity, its a universal infrastructure.

Of course there is nothing new about battery powered trains when the Railways were nationalised British Rail Engineering looked at sodium sulphur battery technology in the 1970’s.  Bombardier are looking at lithium technology batteries.  Tests of the battery powered trains will commence in earnest later on this year.


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