Technology supplier ABB believes that a localised, personalised approach is the way forward as the rail industry aims to achieve decarbonisation. Therefore, investment decisions with regards to rail electrification infrastructure should be made depending on which rail network is being developed.

As well as considering this point of view, ABB shares how the company maximises the benefits of electrification, the importance of low carbon technologies and its efforts in upgrading the Metro Trains Melbourne Hurstbridge Line.

Jasleen Mann speaks with Antonio Colla, global railway marketing & sales manager at ABB, about the rail industry’s potential for decarbonisation.

Jasleen Mann (JM): How can infrastructure impact the decarbonisation of railways?

Antonio Colla (AC): There is no doubt that the global rail industry is facing a challenging time as it pivots to net zero goals, all while meeting soaring demand in the now and remaining primed for future growth.

The good news is we already have many of the low carbon technologies needed to make this transition happen. However, this must be met with significant investment in improving infrastructure to support the deployment and unlock the full potential of sustainable alternatives.

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While we continue to see the rapid acceleration of rail electrification investment, for example, at the same time, we are now dealing with an evolving electrical grid amid increased renewable integration and global energy insecurity. Therefore, efficient and intelligent electrification infrastructure that enables electric trains to not only draw their power from the grid but control that power correctly will be key to overall reliability and efficiency.

JM: What is meant by local dynamics and how does this impact the decarbonisation of railways?

AC: From our vast experience of working in the global rail industry for more than 100 years, we understand that rail operations can vary dramatically from country to country.

This can include everything from the volume of demand and future forecasts, through to the conditions of the rail lines themselves, the associated local and national power generation facilities and even seasonality factors.

A lot also depends on the wider political framework and net zero goals. Take, for example, the world’s second largest network, Indian Railways. Because of the sheer volume of energy consumption, India’s national rail network has pledged to fully electrify its tracks by 2023 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2030 in an industry first – a move which is estimated with help India achieve five percent of its Paris Agreement goals.

Conversely, the European Union has committed to double high-speed rail use by 2030 in a bid to bridge missing transport links across the continent, increase interoperability and boost cross-border rail services. The remit here is to provide a much more convenient, more sustainable cross-border alternative to flying or driving via, ultimately, realising a single European network.

In this way, while the end goal of achieving rail decarbonisation may be the same, different networks and regions may take different paths to achieve it.

JM: What challenges arise with a one size fits all approach?

AC: Inherently, because no rail network is the same, a standardised approach will always fall short by failing to address network-specific needs.

Rather, hugely positive outcomes can be had, particularly in terms of reducing climate impact, by addressing rail infrastructure projects on a much more bespoke, collaborative basis. That is why ABB always goes to such lengths to provide a localised, personalised approach in line with exacting requirements.

For us, it’s not just about providing the innovation but forging deeper, more meaningful relationships that empower network operators to meet both future goals and current needs through shared expertise, education and expectations. We recognise every rail operator is on their own sustainable journey and want to work with them to help amplify their climate impact.

JM: What is the importance of electrification?

AC: It is no surprise that the electrification of rail infrastructure presents such a major focus in net zero strategies. Electrical traction is, after all, not only an environmentally friendly, pollution-free and energy efficient mode of transport but it can be powered by renewable energy sources.

Importantly too, it offers the only viable option available to meet the operational demand of high speed and long-distance routes, as well as for freight. This is because, even though the latest developments in battery and hydrogen powered trains offer huge promise, the associated range and performance limitations mean they are likely to be used for parts of the network operating light passenger trains.

In this way, major investment in rail electrification will be key to attaining the sustainable development objectives that the rail sector is setting for itself.

JM: How can ABB maximise the benefit of electrification?

AC: One of the other huge benefits of rail electrification is the self-generation opportunity.

The ABB Enviline Energy Storage System, for example, can be positioned along the DC line allowing surplus regenerative braking energy to be captured and re-injected directly back into the line to support the acceleration of other nearby trains. The ability to harness the regenerative energy used in this cycle hundreds of times a day offers the single largest opportunity to improve the energy efficiency of traction systems and reduce grid-based demand. It can reduce overall energy consumption by up to 30 percent.

The system can also be used to manage voltage drops to keep trains running on schedule – all without the associated grid-based power requirement. This reduces associated utility charges and can also be used, in some cases, as an alternative to avoid or defer potential capital investments for new traction substations and additional contracts with utility companies.

It also provides the assurance of critical power backup where, in the event of a power outage or instability from the utility network, operators can access stored energy to move the train to the next station where commuters can safely exit the train.

Taking self-generation one step further, the ABB Enviline Energy Recuperation System can instead be installed at the DC traction substation enabling braking energy to be fed directly back to the AC supply grid. It also enables operators to negotiate a more competitive contract based on estimated self-generation and reactive power compensation.

JM: How did the Metro Trains Melbourne project develop?

AC: Metro Trains Melbourne (Metro) Hurstbridge Line upgrade project offers a perfect demonstration of the benefits of wayside energy storage in action.

Faced with a gap in energy supply on its popular Hurstbridge line, the Metro sought a solution which would rectify overall power quality, ensure a smoother, more reliable journey for passengers and, in turn, enable an increase in frequency on the line. 

Enter the Australian-first application of ABB’s 1,500 Volt DC ABB ESS designed to store and return surplus braking energy back to the line for the Metro service. As well as overcoming the issues of power quality and voltage sag, the unique energy-management system has enabled a 15 percent reduction in carbon emissions through energy recycling – as well as increasing sustainability, allowing new trains to be added at a lower than usual cost and creating a smoother ride.