You only have to look at recent climate change protests at the UK’s Heathrow Airport to realise the scope of the ever-growing environmental awareness and its focus on transportation systems. Trucks, cars and airlines have all been racing to offset carbon emissions. Now rail, it seems, is getting ready to follow, with the launch of a new project that has already made history and headlines for being green.

It is little surprise that the project stems from British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Trains, who in June 2007 launched the first biodiesel train. It is almost 180 years after Stephenson’s Rocket won the Rainhill Trials (a competition which sought to find a train that could carry both passengers and freight) and many say the decision has made just as significant history as Stephenson’s design.

Running on a blended fuel, the new Virgin Train offers great CO2 reductions, and hence is an attractive option of travel for environmentally conscious businesses and passengers wanting to travel throughout Europe.

This pioneering trial is a major element of a national programme undertaken by Virgin Trains, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) to develop the use of sustainable fuels in the rail industry. During the pilot scheme Virgin Trains will be running one of its Voyager trains on B20 – a 20% blend of biodiesel in conventional fuel. Virgin ultimately aims to see how effective the blend proves in commercial operation.

The UK’s first run in June, on a passenger service from Euston station in London to Llandudno, North Wales, was just the beginning. If the trial proves successful Virgin is looking to convert its entire fleet of Voyagers. It estimates that this could cut its carbon emissions by up to 14% – an annual total of 34,500t less CO2. This would be the equivalent of taking 23,000 cars off the road.

Starting with 20% biodiesel, Sir Richard Branson says he ultimately aims to see his trains running on it entirely – a carbon saving potentially equal to removing over 100,000 cars from the roads.

BIOFUEL PRODUCTION BOOSTED

According to the Worldwatch Institute, in 2006 the production of all forms of biofuels worldwide grew by 28% to 44 billion litres. Although these comprise less than 1% of liquid fuels, they meet nearly a fifth of the overall global increase in supply.

“In 2006 the production of all forms of biofuels worldwide grew by 28% to 44 billion litres.”

Biodiesel in particular seems to be in ascendancy; while fuel ethanol production rose by 22%, biodiesel manufacture increased by 80%.

Part of the reason for this may be down to the fact that no modifications are required – and its use has been approved by most of the world’s major engine manufacturers.

Currently formed by the transesterification of vegetable oils, biodiesel is a clean-burning and entirely renewable fuel which performs very favourably in comparison with its traditional petroleum counterpart, with the added advantage that it is free of aromatics and sulphur.

Although fuel efficiency for blends such as the B20 being used in the Virgin Trains trial is around 1% lower than for high-speed diesel, the greater lubricant effect and ease of biodegradation more than offset this slight drop in performance.

Figures from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) put the annual consumption of diesel by the railways of all the world’s industrialised countries, except states of the Russian Federation, at a minimum of 17,000 million litres. The Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer (UIC) has suggested that the full global total may possibly amount to double this. With rail transport such a mass user, the potential synergy is clear.

STUMBLING BLOCKS

Although a strong case has been made for biofuels as a welcome solution to widespread concerns about man-made climate change, the idea is not without its critics. In theory, the resulting CO2 emissions are much lower but according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, in practice some biofuels result in hardly any carbon reduction at all.

“There are concerns that the upsurge in biofuels could result in far greater environmental and social harm than anticipated.”

The problem largely centres on fuel production and, in particular, land use. Calculating the ‘avoided’ emissions – and the amount of fossil fuels which could be replaced – needs to take into account how much alternative fuel can be produced per hectare. However, to make the comparison valid, the carbon released during the whole production cycle must be factored in – yielding a figure for net avoided carbon emissions.

In a study by a group of UK-based scientists recently published in the journal Science, it became clear that forests can result in up to nine times more CO2 being absorbed than the production of biofuels could achieve on the same area of land.

The carbon issue is not the only potential obstacle. Little more than a fortnight after Virgin Trains’ inaugural London to Llandudno run, Grain – a charity which supports poor farmers in emerging nations – expressed concerns that the upsurge in biofuels could result in far greater environmental and social harm than anticipated.

Their worries are echoed by other agencies, not least because competition for land can be a major factor in shaping the agriculture of developing countries.

The Worldwatch Institute concluded that current biofuel production methods place a heavy burden on land and water resources, while the UN found basic food prices being driven up in poor countries, since many oil-rich crops can be used for fuel manufacture.

In addition, at the recent World Water Week conference in Stockholm in August, experts sounded the alarm over the potential that growing crops for biofuels could jeopardise water supplies. There are clearly a number of issues which need to be resolved if plant fuels are to be produced sustainably on a large scale.

OTHER APPROACHES

It was precisely these points which led the UK’s National Express to announce that the company – which runs a range of intercity, commuter and rural passenger train services in addition to its more widely known coach operations – had decided to suspend its own biodiesel trials. While reaffirming its continued commitment to environmental initiatives, Richard Bowker, National Express chief executive, made it clear that sustainability of supply was a vital issue to be addressed to ensure that the biofuel option really was as green as it seemed to be.

One train operator is, however, already addressing these questions, although, admittedly, approaching them from a rather different route. Indian Railways was born in 1853, a mere 22 years after the Rainhill trials, with the inauguration of the first passenger service between Bori Bunder, Bombay and Thana – a distance of 21 miles (34km).

“Unlike most nations, India has concentrated on using oil-bearing shrubs to produce its biodiesel.”

In 2002 – five years before the Virgin Trains trial – the company started using biodiesel in one of its high-speed passenger trains. Unlike most nations, India has concentrated on using oil-bearing shrubs to produce its biodiesel. Plants such as jatropha, mahua and karanji – once thought to be of very little use – thrive on land which cannot be used for food-crops.

India’s rail network is the country’s largest user of diesel – some 2,000 million litres of diesel in 2005, together with half a million litres of biodiesel in the two trains which are currently run on a 5% mix.

Given the policies of both the Indian government to promote a national biofuels industry and the railway operators themselves, biodiesel usage seems set to continue and grow.

Indian Railways intends to use uncultivated land beside its tracks to provide sufficient biodiesel to allow all its trains to use a 10% blend. Jatropha – the locally favoured feedstock – is ideal for the purpose, since its bush-like growth does not impair visibility along the line.

Moreover, the yield per hectare is significantly higher than for typical vegetable oil crops such as rape, sunflower and soya, which slants the ‘avoided’ emissions calculation in its favour as well as lowering biodiesel production costs.

THE FUTURE OF BIODIESEL

While the principal form of biodiesel available today is a fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) made from transesterified oils, a promising future alternative is waiting in the wings. Biomass-to-Liquid (BtL) offers a synthetic biodiesel formed by the initial gasification of biomass – non-food plant materials such as straw, grasses and forestry wastes – with the gas product subsequently undergoing a Fischer-Tropsch (gas-to-liquid) process.

Known as advanced or second-generation biodiesel, and commercially as ‘SunDiesel, this is one route that seems to answer many of the objections raised about the wider implications of biofuel production.

“Using advanced or second-generation biodiesel is one route that seems to answer many of the objections raised about the wider implications of biofuel production.”

A number of companies are keeping a careful eye on the progress of biodiesel, including the French railway operator SNCF, Germany’s DB, CD in the Czech Republic, MAV in Hungary and National Express. Nevertheless, despite the interest, second-generation fuel is unlikely to be widely available for some years.

Developing these biofuels entails building commercial ‘bio-refineries’, which demand significant capital expenditure, perhaps four or five times as much as plants using corn as a feedstock. However, when grain prices rise – around $3 per bushel being the tipping point – the overall cost of producing second-generation biofuels becomes similar to those made from food crops.

Ironically, the current trend of rising food prices could ultimately help advanced biodiesel technology become commercially competitive sooner rather than later.