Is the rail industry racing up the wrong track in its haste to boost its green credentials?
On 7 June this year, Virgin Trains brought into service Europe’s first train to run partly on fuels derived from crops. At its launch, Sir Richard Branson forecast drastic cuts in the rail industry’s carbon count while the would-be UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, called for every British train operator to consider running its fleet on biodiesel.
Bold words for a bold venture, but already many in the industry are questioning the validity of Branson’s move. Why?
For the next six months, Virgin Trains will run the Bombardier-built Voyager on a 20 per cent biodiesel-diesel blend known as B20 and produced by the UK’s largest independent oil company, Greenergy. During this time the train will tour much of Britain dipping into special re-fuelling points at Staffordshire and West Yorkshire.
Come December, Virgin hopes to see if the fuel blend has damaged the train’s Cummins QSK-19 engine in any way as well as investigate the impact on running time and power output. Any adverse passenger effects, such as engine noise, aromatics or vibrations, will also be assessed.
And this is just the beginning. Branson’s trial is only one piece of the picture with the launch stemming from a £1m study led by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB).
The study has assessed the effects of biodiesel on key engines currently running in several of today’s fleets. It is the extensive computer modelling and bench tests that pinpointed the best fuel blend for the Cummins QSK-19 engine (‘The Perfect Blend’).
So with such a promising start and strong industry backing, why the uncertainties over Virgin’s biodiesel venture?
Bryan Donnelly, ATOC’s vehicle engineering manager makes no secret of his thoughts on the venture: "It is terrific what Virgin has done, the way the whole company has got behind the project is very impressive."
But ask him whether or not he thinks biodiesel will play a large role in the future rail industry and his reply is: "We don’t know. We really do need to wait until the end of the service trial."
Why the reticence? According to Donnelly a first stumbling block is the actual fuelling infrastructure. As he says, right now, the Virgin trial relies on separate biodiesel pumps, but if the venture is to be rolled out over the entire 78-strong Voyager fleet, nationwide fuelling supplies will be required. And this won’t be cheap.
Standard Voyagers currently re-fuel at 14 locations dotted around the UK. If the company ramps up its biodiesel venture, each site would require temporary biodiesel fuel installations.
"This would be costly," adds David Edwards, Virgin CrossCountry project engineer. "We would also be using the sites independently – no other train operators would be using them – so we couldn’t even spread the cost by renting them to other users."
Clearly one answer would be for other operators running trains on the Cummins QSK-19 engine to switch to B20; indeed Midland Mainline, Transpennine Express and First Great Western have trains that use this model. But infrastructure is not the only issue hampering biodiesel adoption.
So-called green fuels are heavily taxed. While the red diesel commonly used by the national rail industry is taxed at 7.69 pence per litre, the tax rate on the biodiesel blend used in the Virgin trial is nearly eight times greater.
"For the trial we are exempt from this tax, but if this excise duty remains it will not be commercially economical to move our entire fleet to biodiesel," says Edwards.
What’s more, many believe that until manufacturers can truly certify how green their fuel actually is, applying an appropriate tax is impossible. And it is this lack of environmental kudos that could be the real show-stopper for biodiesel.
Critics of biodiesel cite two key reasons not to use the fuel. First, they argue that if you look at the greenhouse gas levels emitted during fuel production, there is little, if any, carbon savings relative to conventional diesel production. Even worse, emissions can rise.
Second, they say turning over land to biofuel crop growth spells economic and environmental disaster. Not only will we run out of food to eat but cutting down forests that act as carbon sinks will exacerbate climate change.
In the face of environment opposition, Edwards remains stoic. "The sustainability of the fuel is a big issue… yes there are viable points, yes these are open for discussion and yes they need to be resolved if the rail industry is to convert to biodiesel," he asserts. "But we have tried to ensure our fuel is as sustainable as possible. Our supplier Greenergy is very outspoken on sustainability… and runs a stringent [production] process."
Stringent or not, until the emergence of a clear certification scheme that allows train operators to know how much carbon dioxide is saved when buying biodiesel, the rail industry cannot fully adopt the biofuel.
So if biodiesel trains are not ready to lead the rail industry to a greener destination, what’s the alternative? Perhaps floating is one answer.
Magnetic levitation trains have been in operation since the 1980s. Having notched up speeds in excess of 550km/h – to rival turboprops and jet aircrafts – these could provide the eco-friendly adrenaline rush you are after.
Proponents of the technology believe Maglevs have an environmental edge on their wheeled counterparts as they can handle more passengers per hour, without introducing air pollution. Of course, the electricity used in transit has to be generated, so the overall environmental impact of the system depends on the power generation source. While only a few maglev lines are currently operating, various projects worldwide may soon change this.
For example, UK Ultraspeed has proposed to construct a 850km, 500km/h system from Heathrow Airport, through Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh to Glasgow. This 155 minute route would transform transport links between Scotland and London with many Scots believing it would finally allow the North to take on the economic force of London.
Professor Roger Kemp of Lancaster University, however, has quite a different take on the ultra-fast locomotives. Having spent years working on high-speed trains including Maglevs, he recently looked into UK Ultraspeed’s proposal and concluded its green credentials could be better.
"In terms of energy consumption per seat, the proposed system, when operating at 500km/h would use between two and three times as much energy as an IC225 [UK’s fastest electric locomotive] and roughly 40 per cent more than a 300km/h TGV running on a direct route," he says.
He is certain replacing conventional train services with this system would increase the UK’s carbon count. He is also sceptical of the economic feasibility of Maglev projects in general saying ‘they are hugely expensive and nobody has seriously costed them’, a sentiment echoed by many in the rail industry.
But what about a Maglev with a difference? For years researchers worldwide have been looking to build Maglevs that transit through tunnels at reduced pressures. Energy requirements would drop, cruise speeds would come in at 500km/h, with some proposals promising eventual travel speeds in excess of 6,000km/h.
Interestingly, feasibility studies have shown that the biggest barrier to such projects is not whether such a train could be built, but rather the sheer cost of tunnelling. As Kemp spells out: "Tunnelling is horrendously expensive, plus you have the cost of some damn great vacuum cleaner to suck out all of the air."
Kemp believes that a more realistic, and environmentally-friendlier alternative to Maglev is already operating in Japan; the 700 Series Shinkansen, or ‘bullet train’. The Shinkansen itself is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan comprising conventional rail and Maglev trainsets. The 700 series entered service in 1999, following a design goal of producing a train almost as fast as the previous 500 Series, but at a lower cost.
"Over a fifteen year period, the Japanese have really tried to reduce energy and make their trains environmentally friendly. They go fast, but not super fast," explains Kemp.
Make waste slowly
Indeed, Kemp believes it is the rail industry’s fixation with speed that is damaging its eco-friendly credentials. "Progress is seen as carrying more people faster," he says. "But if we are going to seriously get back to anything that resembles carbon neutrality… we need to travel more slowly."
Given that going slow is an absolute anathema to governments and the public, is there another way? Recent studies by Kemp in conjunction with UK rail consultants Interfleet Technology pin-pointed around 50 straightforward ways to cut carbon and save cash.
Easy wins include turning off train heating while vehicles are stabled overnight – not common practice in the UK rail industry – and improving driving style to promote energy efficiency. Kemp also talks about electrifying more lines and building lightweight trains; Japanese trains are around 30 per cent lighter than British versions.
"I’d like to believe there are alternative technologies that could cut carbon emissions, but I don’t," he says.