The UK Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) is working with French railway company Alstom to pilot a hydrogen fuel cell-powered train in the UK by late 2019 or early 2020.

RSSB chief executive Mark Phillips made the comments in response to a speech made by Transport Minister Jo Johnson, who said that he ‘would like to see us take all diesel-only trains off the track by 2040.’ Johnson also referred to the Alstom iLint, a train which runs in Germany and ‘only emits steam and condensed water, yet is capable of 140km/h and a range of up to 800km,’ according to Johnson.

“We welcome the Minister’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions from the railways,” said Phillips. “In 2015, we co-funded a £7 million pilot of a battery-powered train with industry partners, and we are working with Alstom to pilot a hydrogen-powered train.”

The iLint combines hydrogen and oxygen drawn from the surrounding environment to produce an electrical current, and only release water vapour as a waste product. The trains also use lithium-ion batteries to efficiently store and release excess electrical energy, and a smart management system to effectively deploy energy. Fourteen iLint trains are scheduled to begin carrying passengers in Lower Saxony in Germany this year, and could provide a blueprint for similar projects in the UK.

The Department for Transport has called hydrogen-powered trains ‘potentially a solution’ for modernising regional rail transport in the UK. Lines in the west of the country, such as those around Bristol and Gloucester, have not yet been electrified, and could now instead be the recipients of the country’s first hydrogen-powered trains.

Maggie Simpson, executive director of the Rail Freight Group, urged caution, however. She said that while hydrogen-powered trains ‘may show promise for lightweight passenger trains, their application for heavy duty freight is at best unproven, and setting an arbitrary deadline of 2040 could well therefore be counterproductive, damaging the case for investment.’

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