Battery-Powered Train May Be Zooming into Circulation

Network Rail offers sustainable alternative to modern rail travel

Network Rail is currently running a test schedule of a battery-powered commuter train. The schedule serves a 12-mile stretch of track in Essex and will continue through February as a shakedown phase for the Class 379 Electrostar train.

Also called the Independently Powered Electric Multiple Unit (IPEMU), the electric train runs only slightly slower than diesel powered trains or those on an electrical cable route. If the test is successful, the benefits of a system of battery-powered commuter trains could be substantial:

  • Electrical trains run quieter than diesel trains, and battery-powered trains run quieter than those on electrical lines
  • The U.K. could expand the range of its electrical fleet without running additional costly, unsightly electrical lines
  • Battery power in trains, like battery power in cars, is potentially cleaner and more sustainable than vehicles that run by burning a petrochemical
  • Electrical cable networks pose environmental hazards, which would be eliminated by the battery-powered version

Battery Powered Train Overhead.pngBattery-powered vehicles, including trains, are not a new phenomenon. The U.K. test does indicate a potential upgrade in scale, however. It’s the first test of this kind of train for a major commuter rail network. If the U.K. adopts the train, it not only would make a difference in the U.K. but would serve as proof of concept for commuter systems worldwide.

Even if successful, the plan and technology both face hurdles before wholesale implementation becomes a reality. Technologically, the biggest issue is battery life. The phosphate and hot sodium nickel salt batteries — 80,000 per train, each about the size of a cigarette lighter — have a lifespan of just two hours. That’s means they’re a no-go for longer distances, and pose logistical problems even for a short commuter route.

Expense is also a major concern. Despite the savings on line building and infrastructure, a new train is still a new train. Buying and installing a new fleet – or even large-scale refitting — could stall installation even if the test completes without a hitch.