The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is calling for urgent action to introduce hydrogen trains in areas outside the electrified rail network in the UK.

Investment in hydrogen trains is a vital part of the process to improve air quality but must not be seen as an easy replacement for electrification schemes, according to a new report released today (7th Feb) by the association.

Around 29% of Britain’s fleet currently run only on diesel fuel which emits large concentrations of particulate matter, known to be damaging to our health, particularly at enclosed stations.

Hydrogen is a clean technology that can help decarbonise the railway industry and support the UK Government in its ambitious plans to scrap diesel-only trains by 2040.

“Creating hydrogen clusters, a collection of businesses associated with the hydrogen industry, around where hydrogen is produced could help local transport systems in the UK’s regions to decarbonise.”

Dr. Jennifer Baxter, Head of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

However, the report emphasises that hydrogen trains could be seen as a solution by government to avoid expensive electrification schemes, but stresses that hydrogen trains should only be seen as an option where electrification is not the most economical or technically viable, for example on rural routes.

The report also says that hydrogen is not suitable for freight and high-speed trains because it requires a large amount of storage space.

It builds on the findings of the institutions A breath of fresh air: New solutions to reduce transport emissions, which called for a Clean Air Act to help the 71% of local authorities which missed their 2017 air quality targets.

Dr. Jenifer Baxter, Head of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said, “The government has set out plans to phase-out the use of diesel-only trains by 2040 in order to reduce carbon emissions, but less than 50% of the network is electrified and the remaining half is unlikely to ever completely become so, particularly given the cancellation of three schemes in the North, the Midlands and Wales.”

“Creating hydrogen clusters, a collection of businesses associated with the hydrogen industry, around where hydrogen is produced could help local transport systems in the UK’s regions to decarbonise. Trains and buses which operate near industries where hydrogen is produced could use hydrogen as a fuel, as production, storage and refuelling would be nearby, thereby reducing fuel distribution and transport costs.”

David Shirres, member of the Institution’s Railway Division, added, “Until recently, diesel engines were the only practicable option for self-powered rail vehicles. Yet diesel fumes in city centres are becoming increasingly unacceptable as shown by proposals for ultra-low emission zones as well as the government’s call to remove diesel-only trains by 2040.”

“The recent introduction of a hydrogen powered trains on rural routes in Germany offers a solution which needs further development for operation in the UK. However, storing hydrogen requires significantly more space than diesel fuel. For this reason, hydrogen is not suitable for high-powered rail traction and so should not be considered as an alternative to electrification.”

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