UK Battery-Powered Prototype Train Brings Electric Trans to Non-Electrified Routes

You might not know it, but pretty much every modern train today — be it a subway car or a high-speed InterCity service — is powered by massively powerful electric motors. Even so-called diesel-electric trains — which burn vast quantities of diesel fuel to move them along but can travel into remote un-electrified areas–  use fossil fuels to power a generator set which in turn provides the electricity needed to power the high-torque traction motors needed to move the train along.

While the new prototype train doesn't need an overhead power line to operate, it's being tested on an electrified line.

While the new prototype train doesn’t need an overhead power line to operate, it’s being tested on an electrified line.

Traditionally, all-electric trains have required either a cantilevered overhead power line or an electrified ‘third rail’ to move them along, but earlier this week Abellio Greater Anglia — a UK-based train operator — ran the first UK battery electric train service in more than half a century.

The train itself is a specially-modified Class 379 Bombardier electric train with a retrofitted battery pack slung under its passenger carriages. Like Tesla’s famous Model S electric car, the Class 379 Electrostar makes use of heavy-duty 18650 lithium-ion battery cells.

Instead of the 6,381 cells found in Tesla’s Model S battery pack however, the cord-free cross-country train uses some 80,000 cells. While exact battery capacities or train range aren’t discussed, the train appears to have enough range to allow it to operate on the 45-minute train ride between railway stations of Harwich International and Manningtree in Essex — although we note that particular train line is actually electrified.

Since the prototype train is fitted with overhead cantilevers in addition to its on-board battery pack, it’s possible for it to operate as a regular electric train as required, recharging its battery pack from an overhead power lines where they exist.

But while the Mayflower Line on which the train is being tested is already fully-electrified, there are plenty of other rail lines in the area which aren’t.

The train can lower its overhead cantilever and operate in battery mode when required.

The train can lower its overhead cantilever and operate in battery mode when required.

These non-electrified lines — tiny single-track branch lines that often meet up with larger, electrified lines for a while before branching off again into sparsely-populated rural areas in Suffolk and Norfolk — aren’t particularly long in length yet traditionally have required a diesel electric train to operate on them.

Those behind the project, including train manufacturer Bombardier, Network Rail, Abellio Greater Anglia and the Rail Executive arm of the Department for Transport — which co-funded the project through the FutureRailway innovation program — say that one day they hope trains like the one being tested will make train travel cheaper and greener.

“We’ve made terrific progress with this project so far and seeing the battery-powered train in timetabled service is a huge step forward,” said Network Rail Principal Engineer James Ambrose. Prior to its use in a timetabled service, the train underwent successful non-service trails in Derby and Leicestershire.

The train uses the same commercial traction batteries found in the Tesla Model S -- but arranges them in 'pods' which are then slung under the carriage.

The train uses the same commercial traction batteries found in the Tesla Model S — but arranges them in ‘pods’ which are then slung under the carriage.

“After months of engineering and testing, the train is running just as we would like it. We’ll be using this five-week period to gather data on how it handles during passenger service – most travellers will recognise how quiet and smooth the ride is compared to a diesel-powered train,” he continued.

As well as saving on diesel fuel however, battery electric trains could save billions of pounds in upgrade costs to railways that are currently not electrified. Not only that, but if lines aren’t required to be electrified — a costly and disruptive process that can cause havoc for the average rail commuter while work is carried out —  the savings from not electrifying each and every train line could be measured in the hundreds of millions — or even billions of pounds.

Given the strain that the UK railway system is currently under, that could be a very good thing indeed.

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