When it comes to railway-propulsion development, these are exciting times!

From wood and coal and oil (for steam generation) to electricity, gasoline, diesel, liquefied natural gas, linear induction, magnetic levitation, vacuum tube and hydrogen propulsion (did I miss any?) the world of train-power generation has experienced it all.

What we’re talking about here are generations of train-propulsion techniques, some of which were tried but never really caught on.

A U.S. first

Beginning in 2024, the first hydrogen-powered train in the United States will enter service.

In a press release, Stadler US Inc. (a division of parent Stadler, a global rail vehicle construction company headquartered in Bussnang, Switzerland) announced, “A contract signing between Stadler and the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) cleared the way for the first hydrogen-powered passenger train to operate in the United States.

“The agreement marks a major milestone in bringing zero-emission passenger rail technology to the U.S. The hydrogen-powered FLIRT H2 vehicle is planned to be introduced in 2024 as part of the Redlands Passenger Rail Project, a nine-mile connector between Redlands and San Bernardino’s Metrolink station.

“Under the agreement, Stadler will develop the first hydrogen-powered train. The ordered vehicle consists of two cars with a power pack in between. This holds the fuel cells and the hydrogen tanks. The train is expected to have seating space for 108 passengers and in addition generous standing room. The FLIRT H2 is projected [to] transport passengers with a maximum speed of up to 79 mph (130 km/h).”

Hydrogen-fueled train

Meanwhile, British company Vivarail announced (also in a press release) Jan. 31, 2019 a hydrogen train product of its own. For details see: “Development of green-fuel technologies for rail spearheaded by British company” here.

The future for hydrogen rail power looks promising, indeed.

Let there be light

Solar power: If it works for trains, why not food trucks?” In that post, the message is clear:

“Now in order for this [the Byron Bay Railway of Byron Bay, Australia] railway employing the use of solar technology to be a successful passenger train service provider, to go to the expense of converting a two-unit passenger car set from diesel to renewable solar power and then run the train using this technology, there had to have been justification for doing so.”

And there was. This train service is the first and only one in the world to rely solely on solar for train power.

This could definitely be the start of something big.

The back story

So, how did we get here?

The advent of steam power in the railway realm was probably the single biggest leap, more so than any other advance in locomotive-propulsion-development history. A breakthrough steam definitely was for before this, trains or freight cars either operated by gravity and cable (as in the case of an incline railway) or the rail conveyances themselves were tugged by animals; by a lone horse or a team of horses, mostly.

Postcard of the Richmond Union Passenger Rwy and electric trolleys

With smoke being a big problem with steam engines in cities, alternatives were sought. Though electricity was discovered many years before, electricity as a source of energy wasn’t commonly used in the railroad field until the latter part of the 19th century. It was in May of 1888 in Richmond, Virginia that the first electric streetcar line in America began operating. Early trials proved quite challenging for the fledgling field’s inventor, Frank Sprague. Subsequent to those early first days the development race really picked up.

Problem was, compared to conventional animal- or steam-powered affairs, upfront costs for electric-powered pikes were higher and the overhead trolley wires were considered unsightly.

With the advent and eventually the proliferation of the automobile and highways, electric street railways by the 1920s and ’30s were falling out of favor. It was right about this time that diesel propulsion entered the picture and motive power development – at this stage 100+ years old – really soared.

Beginning about the mid-1960s the railroad industry had fallen on hard times making it difficult for them to stay afloat. Passenger service at that time was all but non-existent. Because railroad companies paid taxes they were hamstrung even more.

While U.S. common-carrier railroading by this time had seen much better days and seemingly was doing all it could to keep from going under, quite interestingly, this is when Japan had its initial foray into high-speed train travel which officially commenced on Oct. 1, 1964 when the country’s Shinkansen (‘[New] Trunk Line“) bullet train first entered service.

In the late ’60s, early ’70s, the American government came to the rescue of the U.S. passenger train sector with the formation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, known more familiarly as Amtrak. Amtrak’s initial startup date – May 1, 1971.

On the freight side of the equation, meanwhile, with an inability to set its own rates, ultimately legislation was passed in the forms of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 and the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, the latter, in effect, deregulating the railroad industry, the result of these actions enabling the industry to turn around.

The rest, as it is so often repeated, is history.

Getting back to propulsion methods, today, little by little, or so it would seem, newer technologies like magnetic levitation, vacuum (evacuated) tube and atmospheric propulsion techniques are being ever more embraced and becoming more and more commonplace.

Streetcars, meanwhile, are making a reappearance and intercity or commuter trains are enjoying healthy patronage numbers in many locations. And, on some of these, technologies such as battery-electric traction power, electr[o-magnet]ic induction and even hydrogen power where the exhaust byproduct is nothing more than harmless water vapor are making headway as is evident from what is written at the top.

Images: Vivarail (upper); Printed by Louis Kaufmann & Sons, Baltimore, Maryland, (middle)

– Alan Kandel

This post was last revised on Nov. 29, 2019 @ 2:50 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

1 thought on “When it comes to railway-propulsion development, these are exciting times!”

  1. Last year OBB, Austrian Federal Railways opened a solar farm to power trains on the Ostebahn Eastern Railway with a new type of inverter that connects directly to the 25KV AV overhead cables, OBB uses a variety of renewables including regenerative braking of lifts and escalators at Vienna Station. This year a community owned solar farm was opened at Aldershot, Surrey, UK supplying electricity to the signals but will power 750V DC 3rd rail trains if the trial goes well, the person that started the project, Riding Sunbeams executive director Leo Murray, was interviewed in The Economist podcast Babbage, episode Reality Check Nov 20, 2019, (interview starts at 7 mins 30 secs), he thinks solar farms can power London Underground trains, trams and trolly trucks, Alice Bell from the charity that was called 10:10, which is involved in the project wrote in The Guardian that there is great potential for solar farms to be used by San Francisco trams. SNCF France and Indian Railways have plans to introduce solar farms, Indian Railways uses pv panels mounted on the train roofs to power air con and electrics but the pv panels are too heavy, I think rooftop pv’s are used, not specially developed lightweight pv panels on some hybrid and electric cars as well as the Byron Bay train, which is also charged by pv’s at the train shed.

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