Alstom Breeze hydrogen train

Hydrogen train trial promised for Midland Main Line

Image credit: Alstom

Abellio has been named as the next train operator in England’s East Midlands, with a franchise commitment that includes a trial of hydrogen trains. At the same time a railway hydrogen fuelling project has won research funding.

The new franchise will run for eight years from 18 August 2019 with a discretionary two-year extension.

Announcing the award in a written statement to Parliament, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling promised a host of improvements for passengers: “Abellio East Midlands will oversee the introduction of brand-new trains, entirely replacing the existing intercity fleet with more reliable and comfortable trains. Passengers will benefit from an 80 per cent increase in the number of morning peak seats into Nottingham, Lincoln and St Pancras. Passengers will also see faster journey times over long distances, with a new express service from Corby through Luton into London.”

The franchise also includes environmental commitments, he said. “The East Midlands Railway will be at the forefront of the government’s commitment to deliver a cleaner, greener rail network. Abellio East Midlands will trial hydrogen fuel cell trains on the Midland Main Line and will run zero-carbon pilots at six stations along the route.”

The East Midlands network covers a large area from London in the south to Leeds and York in the north, and from Liverpool and Manchester in the west to Cleethorpes, Skegness and Norwich in the east, but the core Midland Main Line runs from London St Pancras through Leicester and Derby to Sheffield.

As the franchise award is currently subject to a 10-day standstill period, Abellio was unable to give E&T any further details of the hydrogen trial, but Grayling’s statement says it will be on the Midland Main Line, and it would be logical to run it on a non-electrified section where hydrogen would be a potential alternative to diesel trains.

The southern end of the line is already electrified, with work in hand to take the wires north as far as Kettering, and in February rail minister Andrew Jones confirmed an extension to Market Harborough, enabling connection to a power supply at nearby Braybrooke.

Full electrification to Sheffield was cancelled on cost grounds in 2017.

Hydrogen trains are already running in passenger service on a line in north Germany, supplied by Alstom. This model would be unsuitable for the more space-constrained lines in Britain, but in January Alstom and train-leasing company Eversholt Rail unveiled the design of a hydrogen train for the UK market, the Breeze, converted from existing Class 321 electric trains.

British company Vivarail is also developing a hydrogen variant of its rebuilt London Underground trains.

Another leasing company, Porterbrook, is working with the University of Birmingham on its own hydrogen conversion, HydroFlex, based on a Class 319 conversion (the former Thameslink trains).

This same partnership, along with Transport for West Midlands, was named yesterday as one of six winners in the RSSB’s Intelligent Power Solutions to Decarbonise Rail competition. The Hyd-Energy feasibility study will develop a concept design for the infrastructure that will be required to support the development of a hydrogen fuelling system at a local railway depot. It will then use this learning “to develop recommendations for general hydrogen depot requirements, processes and procedures and equipment options for hydrogen production, delivery, compression and storage.”

Hydrogen trains could play a role on the network where electrification is impracticable or not economically justified and air quality is a major concern, but recent rail industry reports have confirmed that hydrogen will not be a viable substitute for diesel on heavy-duty freight and maintenance trains or long-distance high-speed routes in the near future.

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