The region is on track to solve the challenges facing rolling stock, writes David Fisken, rail sector specialist at the West Midlands Growth Company

The need to address the challenges facing rolling stock has become more pressing in recent months. The UK is on a mission to be net-zero by 2050, and with transport accounting for around a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, there is heightened pressure for the rail industry to decarbonise.

The Coronavirus pandemic has only intensified this demand. As the national economy reels from the impact of the global health crisis, low-carbon transport technologies are in the spotlight.

Certainly in the West Midlands, our regional plan for economic recovery is centred on harnessing our existing industry strengths in transport and manufacturing to propel our global reputation as a destination for innovation, and boost the UK’s earning power.

The current climate presents a critical opportunity to review what the future of rail will look like, and how industry can tackle the issues of supply, accessibility, capacity and emissions of rolling stock.

While there have been many conversations, ideas and strategies on how to approach these problems, in the West Midlands we already have a number of practical solutions in development that could be ready for mass rollout in a matter of years to come.


Recognising the power of transformation

There is no quick fix that can transform the rail industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to cleaner power generation. While the need for electrification is undisputed, such a large-scale overhaul of established infrastructure absorbs time that we may not have to successfully combat climate change.

Driving a critical response to this challenge is the University of Birmingham, with the development of the UK’s first hydrogen-powered train. Called HydroFLEX, the train uses hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat, making it the world’s first bi-mode electric hydrogen train. It has been designed with the purpose of retrofitting existing rolling stock, with the current iteration a converted Class 319 train fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell. The technology is anticipated to be widely available to retrofit current in-service trains by 2023.

The benefits for the industry are many. Using hydrogen means there are virtually no emissions, but it also allows the train to run autonomously on non-electrified routes, taking some pressure off the network to join the grid.

This has a positive knock on effect for rolling stock supply by extending the lifetime of existing trains. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s also the potential it will boost capacity and accessibility on the railways, with the next stage of the project focused on developing a hydrogen and battery powered module that can be fitted underneath the train to allow more space for passengers in the carriages.

Bringing this new innovation to market are researchers from the University’s Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) and experts from rolling stock company Porterbrook. The train had its first mainline trials back in September, securing additional funding from the Department for Transport in recognition of its significance for the UK’s clean mobility agenda.

BCRRE is set to signal change with even more transformational technologies following the launch of a purpose-built Centre of Excellence for Digital Systems in November 2020. Partnering with the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) and Research England on the facility, the new Centre is home to specialist research in digital railway engineering, with a particular focus on developing next generation traffic management and control systems to make better use of existing rolling stock.


Developing lighter train travel

Alliances between academia and industry are a defining feature of the West Midlands’ rail sector, resulting in additional revelations elsewhere around the region.

Among them is a brand new Very Light Rail (VLR) concept. Designed to have a target mass not exceeding one tonne per linear metre, the project is applying design and material technologies from the automotive sector to revolutionise traditional approaches to rail car development.

The concept is being led by WMG at the University of Warwick, in partnership with a consortium of companies from across the core mobility sectors. Two separate projects are in development. The first will see a new inner-city line piloted in Coventry, which will set the precedent for low-carbon, low-cost tram-style transport for medium sized cities around the world.

The second – titled Revolution VLR – is being developed for use on traditional, heavy rail branch lines to minimise track damage and maintenance costs on existing rail networks. The lighter vehicle has significant implications for cutting carbon from the network, while the new car design will boost supplies and redefine how new stock is built in the future.

Underpinning the deployment of VLR is a dedicated £24 million VLR National Innovation Centre in Dudley, which includes an onsite £4 million test track facility to develop prototypes and train a new generation of rail engineers. This UK-first centre will establish VLR as a sub-sector totally unique to the West Midlands, cementing our position at the heart of the UK’s transport revolution.


High-speed innovation

The arrival of HS2 is another defining moment in UK rail that the region is playing host to.

Europe’s largest infrastructure project, the new line will enhance connectivity and level up the national economy, following the likes of the ICE high speed network in Germany and Japan’s bullet train.

Its significance as the country’s low-carbon option for long distance travel cannot be understated. Neither can its potential to boost capacity on the existing railway network, preventing costly upgrades – both financial and environmental – and widespread passenger disruption.

But beyond the advantages of faster travel times, HS2 will be a force for innovation in rail technologies, as well as a key enabler of positive social and economic change.

The launch of a dedicated innovation accelerator confirms this radical approach. Engaging with start-ups and SMEs, its purpose is to accelerate priority areas for tech transformation in rail, encouraging new ideas for enhancing sustainability and efficiency in construction.

Alongside track infrastructure, HS2 is also strengthening the role of train stations in sustainable placemaking. One of two new stations for the West Midlands as part of the project, Birmingham Curzon Street station will have eco-friendly design at its heart. Current plans include capturing rainwater and sustainable power generation to maximise the benefit of natural resources such as sunlight and water. The station is being built to achieve zero carbon emissions from day to day energy consumption.

Quite a statement for the first brand new intercity terminus station built in Britain since the 19th Century. One that illustrates how our region is ready for a revolution in rail like never before.