UK’s First Hydrogen Train Takes to the Rails

HydroFLEX train is a modified diesel train equipped with a hydrogen power source.

(Image Courtesy of University of Birmingham/Porterbrook.)

(Image Courtesy of University of Birmingham/Porterbrook.)

The first hydrogen-powered train in the United Kingdom recently started trial runs on the nation’s rail system—opening the door to eventually decarbonizing the entire British rail network.

The HydroFLEX is the creation of the University of Birmingham’s Center for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) and Porterbrook, a British rolling stock company that owns about a third of the country’s passenger rail fleet. It has been in development for two years, so these trial runs are a significant milestone for the project.

The train is a modified Class 319 train, first built in 1987 by British Rail Engineering. The 319 has been a diesel-burning mainstay of the UK’s extensive train system, though the model is slowly being replaced with newer trains. This particular train had a hydrogen system integrated into it, consisting of the hydrogen fuel tanks, fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries for energy storage, electric motors and control system. 

(Image Courtesy of University of Birmingham/Porterbrook.)

(Image Courtesy of University of Birmingham/Porterbrook.)

Four high-pressure hydrogen fuel tanks store up to 44 pounds of liquid H2. Their pressure is regulated and maintained at a steady 8.5 bar by a pressure drop regulator. The hydrogen is fed into the fuel cell, which mixes it with oxygen pulled from the surrounding air. The system can generate up to 100 kilowatts of electricity for power, water and heat. The by-product of this combustion is pure water rather than greenhouse gas exhaust, which is why this technology holds so much appeal for reducing carbon emissions generated by burning fossil fuels. 

The electricity generated by the hydrogen combustion powers the train’s electric motors when it isn’t on an electrified grid’s traction system. The train can switch seamlessly to the UK’s electric rail network, deriving power from either a 750-volt DC third rail or a 25-kilovolt overhead supply. This gives the train the flexibility to operate on most of the tracks in the system.

“The use of hydrogen is key to helping to decarbonize our railways,” said Dr. Stuart Hillmansen, senior lecturer in Electrical Energy Systems at the university. “We are working with the industry to develop and apply the technology for the next generation of rail vehicles.”First day of the HydroFLEX train on the UK railway system

After the trial runs are completed, the next step for the HydroFLEX will be to develop a hydrogen and battery-powered system that can fit under the train’s passenger compartment, freeing up more space for commuters. Developers are hopeful that the technology will be available to retrofit existing trains by 2023.

The cutting-edge train has received significant investment not only from the developing partners, but also almost $1 million from the UK’s Department of Transport. Decarbonizing the British rail system is a priority for the UK: about 25 per cent of the country’s greenhouse emissions come from transportation activities, and the UK has committed to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 per cent of 1990 levels by the year 2050.

“As we continue on our road to a green recovery, we know that to really harness the power of transport to improve our country – and to set a global gold standard – we must truly embed change,” said UK Transport Secretary Grant Schapps. “That’s why I’m delighted that, through our plans to build back better, we’re embracing the power of hydrogen and the more sustainable, greener forms of transport it will bring.”

Putting Britain’s first hydrogen-powered train on the tracks is a significant milestone for the project, and for the UK’s ambitions to drastically cut the carbon emissions generated by its far-reaching rail network.

Read more about the potential of hydrogen as a green power alternative at Siemens Gamesa Kicks Off Wind-to-Hydrogen Project in Denmark.