The BBC this morning has news of a the UK's first hydrogen train. This is interesting news, but what's more interesting is that this is being driven by the UK government's commitment to phasing out diesel-only trains within the next 20 years. This could end up having a profound effect on hydrogen powered transport of all varieties.
According to the story, over 25% of UK trains are diesel-only, but over half of the UK rail network has no overhead electricity cabling. The case therefore for hydrogen trains is that they can run without diesel, without costly overhead cabling, and unlike battery-only can cover great distances and be refuelled in minutes.
Crucially perhaps, all of the hardware for a hydrogen-powered train can be fitted underneath the floor. This comprises hydrogen storage tanks, and the obligatory fuel-cell, but also a sizeable stack of batteries as a buffer between supply and demand. The batteries greatly reduce peak load on the fuel-cell, thereby permitting rapid acceleration out of stations, the climbing of lengthy hills, and also the prospect of regenerative braking.
Fitting all of these components under the floor maximises the space available for passengers. Most if not all rural routes are served by trains with just 2 or three carriages, so the prospect of one carriage being used entirely by 'the engine' is simply not an option.
However, it is the prospect of the establishment of a nationwide network of hydrogen refuelling stations that has the greatest potential impact.
Take the Heart of Wales line, which runs from Swansea to Shrewsbury, as an example. This line ties together a string of small towns and communities, such as Llangadog, Llandovery, Llanwrtyd and Llandrindod. This may not sound important, but the line is deeply embedded into the Welsh psyche, and a talisman of Welsh rural identity. Perhaps more to the point, it's also a good four hours from one end to the other.
The rail network, consisting as it does of vast swathes of land with just one owner, even makes the ideal basis for the beginnings of the piped hydrogen network that will be required to distribute all this hydrogen around the country. And where there's a filling station for trains, it won't escape anyone's attention that there can be one for cars, vans and lorries too. There is the potential for a lot of money to be made, and it looks like the railways are in the ideal position to capitalise on it.
Assuming a hydrogen train has to be refuelled 'every few hours', it is likely the Heart of Wales line will require three filling stations: one in Swansea, one in Shrewsbury, and one in Llandrindod Wells. With amazing coincidence, Swansea is also home to Swansea University and the Dunnill Hydrogen Research Group, Llandrindod Wells is home to Riversimple, the hydrogen car company, and Shrewsbury is close to where they were previously based, and where they will still have some political influence.
Therefore, networks such as the Heart of Wales line, and the need to preserve them diesel-free, could usher in some much needed investment that could kick-start hydrogen refuelling right across the UK.