Will Rail Line in Hampshire Pave the Way for Direct Powering of Trains?

In what’s said to be a world first some trains in the UK are now running on a rail line wholly powered by a solar farm. About 100 solar panels at the trackside site near Aldershot in Hampshire will supply renewable electricity to power the signalling and lights on Network Rail’s Wessex route. It is thought that this project could be a precursor to solar powered trains on the nation’s network. This could help reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and costs.

The 30kW pilot scheme could pave the way for a more ambitious project capable of directly powering the trains that use this route from next year.

Furthermore Network Rail hopes to use the scheme, developed by the charity 10:10 Climate Action and Imperial College London, to solar-charge its rail lines across the country.

Stuart Kistruck, a director for Network Rail’s Wessex route, said:

“We have ambitions to roll this technology out further across the network should this demonstrator project prove successful, so we can deliver a greener, better railway for our passengers and the wider public.”

The railway infrastructure on the British mainland is mostly managed by Network Rail and they have set aside billions of pounds to electrify rail lines aiming to use solar power if the pilot project is successful. The UK government is aiming to eradicate the use of Diesel on the rail network by 2040.

Solar panels are already used to power the operations of train stations, including Blackfriars in central London. However, the project near Aldershot is the first time a solar array will bypass the electricity grid to plug directly into a railway’s “traction” system.

The research team behind the Aldershot project appropriately called Riding Sunbeams estimates that solar energy could power 20% of the Merseyrail network in Liverpool and around 15% of commuter routes in Kent, Sussex and Wessex as well as solar trains in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Nottingham, London and Manchester. As well as being a greener form of power than diesel, these solar farms could supply cheaper power than electricity from the natural grid which would in turn reduce costs for railways.

Work began over two years ago to find out whether bypassing the electricity grid could make solar power a more efficient energy source for trains.

Once the project proved that connecting solar power directly to rail, tube and tram networks could help meet a significant share of their electricity needs Innovate UK awarded the project funding from the Department of Transport.

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Because the cost of solar power technologies has continued to fall, subsidy-free solar farms can supply electricity at a lower cost than the electricity supplied via the grid. In recent years plans to electrify Britain’s rail lines had faltered due to concern about the costs but these findings have changed that.

Leo Murray, the director of Riding Sunbeams, said that railways will be able to cut their running costs and benefit local communities at the same time as playing a part in tackling the climate crisis.

“Matchmaking the UK’s biggest electricity user, the railways, with the nation’s favourite energy source, solar power, looks like the start of the perfect relationship.”

If the project passes its real-world testing, larger solar projects could be rolled out across South Western Railway (SWR)’s network. SWR having reduced its emissions by 33% in the past year aims to cut its carbon emissions by 60% overall in the next five years.

Amelia Woodley, head of sustainability at South Western Railway, said:

“There’s “never been a better time” to partner with Riding Sunbeams due to the passing of the net-zero emissions legislation.”

Ollie Pendered, executive director of Riding Sunbeams, said:

“We are very excited to be installing the world’s first project to directly power railway lines with solar energy at Aldershot station. We hope this pilot scheme paves the way for the railway industry, and the UK, becoming zero-carbon.”

Leo Murray added that the same model could be used across the world, particularly in sunny countries in South America, and India.

The UK are not the first country to have solar-powered trains. There are more than 250 in service in India with panels on their roofs though because of the weight of the panels their trains need more energy than usual. The subcontinent plans to establish trackside solar farms to eliminate this problem. Indian Railways, the country’s single largest energy consumer hopes to have the first entirely green railway network in 10 years by installing 30GW of solar generation capacity on some of its 51,000 hectares of vacant land.

This plan is part of India’s drive to replace polluting coal-fired power with cleaner energy sources, including as much as 100GW of solar power.

Demand for traction power on the world’s rail networks is escalating and many traditional grids are at full, or nearly full capacity. 

Using solar PV power is potentially a perfect solution that uses photovoltaic panels in close proximity to rail lines to generate electricity and transmit it directly into system as traction current, and/or distribute it to the grid.

A 2017 report into solar PV rail applications by Imperial College in London reported that this could take advantage of a coincidental match between the peak generating time for solar and a peak demand for traction current, while also bypassing current problems in areas of limited grid capacity.

In addition to this, solar PV arrays typically output DC power at 600–800V, while electric rail operates at 750V, meaning that the cost of connecting solar generation to DC traction networks – such as those seen in urban rail networks throughout the UK – should be competitive with grid connection costs, potentially eliminating the need for public subsidies.

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