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What will power the trains of the future?

01/09/2017
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No stranger to embracing and adapting to change, the rail industry is looking to the future in the same manner as the automotive world. The way in which trains are fuelled could be set to alter radically in the future, potentially making trains smoother, quieter more efficient and increasingly environmentally friendly.
As environmental concerns rise to the top of the agenda in many countries electric trains are being favoured over their more polluting diesel counterparts
Electric

As focus is turned to the green properties of travel and transport, electric trains are increasingly being favoured already. Producing around 25 per cent less carbon monoxide than their diesel powered counterparts, electric trains are also considerably cheaper to run, a benefit that will not be missed by operators looking continually to cut costs and make savings. Alongside this however, comes the higher cost of infrastructure and initial setup, with electrified tracks needing to be laid in order for the trains to be able to operate fully. The investment may be seen to be money well spent however when the longer term is considered.
While many predict the future of diesel trains to be bleak, there are advantages and arguments for their use.
Diesel

The counterpart to electricity powered trains is of course, diesel. While many predict the future of diesel powered machinery to be bleak, there are advantages and arguments for its use. Some point to the fact that diesel powered engines require less disruption of their surrounding environment when their routes are installed, and that the generators used to power electric trains are not needed. Safety is also seen to be better with diesel engines; electrified tracks can pose issues when run through residential areas and over crossings and bridges, amongst other places. Their ability to operate even when electricity is down is seen as a large benefit, and could mean that the use of diesel in remote and isolated areas may continue well into the future.
Already undergoing trials in the UK, battery powered trains have similar benefits to diesel trains, but without the air pollution
(Image via Wikimedia user Comyu).

Battery

Already undergoing trials within the UK, the battery powered train has the similar major benefit of diesel in that it doesn’t require powerlines to be laid for it to operate. Using lithium phosphate and sodium nickel batteries the vehicle operates quietly, meaning use in densely populated areas could be favoured. The relatively low cost of the batteries, accompanied by the environmentally friendly properties could also see battery operated trains gaining significant traction in the industry, with the potential for diesel trains to be adapted for use by battery existing. Suggestions have also been made that electric trains could switch to battery on demand, to cover areas where electric lines are not available. At present issues surrounding battery life exist, something which would need to be significantly improved before their use in long-distance trains becomes possible.
The option to combine power sources could be part of the future of powering trains, with a combination of diesel and electric being the most likely option
(Image via Wikimedia).

Hybrid and Dual- Fuelled

The option to combine power sources could be part of the future powering of trains, with a combination of electric and diesel seeming to be likely. Trains and ‘retrofit’ adapter kits have already been manufactured and put in use that can alternate between the two, and could work well in areas that have parts of the track already electrified, but need to bridge gaps, as mentioned above. A combination of diesel and gas power could also become popular, especially within countries that have easy and ready access to large supplies of the raw products.
This year has seen the world's first hydrogen-fuelled passenger trail complete a successful trial in Germany
(Image via Alstom).

Hydrogen

2017 has seen the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled passenger train complete a successful trial run in Germany, paving the way for future use on a wider scale. Powered by a hydrogen fuel cell the train combines hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which produces an electrical current capable of moving the vehicle. The main arguments for increased use of hydrogen power are its efficiency and the fact that emissions are limited to steam and water, making it incredibly environmentally friendly. Rollout could be limited however by the need for power stations to be built along routes.
The future could see solar panels mounted to trains and alongside rail tracks to provide a source of power
(Image via Indian Railways).

Solar

The option of linking up solar panels to train tracks in order to provide a source of fuel is currently being investigated across the UK. If successful and deemed viable, the future could see solar panels located along the routes of train tracks in order to utlize what has long been seen as a cheap and environmentally friendly source of power. Given the nature of solar power, current problems surrounding tracks reaching capacity due to paucity of available fuel sources could be eliminated. Holding back progress is the lack of currently available equipment needed to connect tracks to solar panels, as well as knowledge of how to handle the falls and rises in demand that occur as trains go up and down the line at busy and less busy times. With these problems not seeming too insurmountable, solar power could well be used to power trains sooner rather than later.

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Tags: Engineering
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What will power the trains of the future? - Time to read 4 min
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