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Associate Feature: Further and Faster

Associate Feature: Further and Faster

In many ways transport secretary Michael Matheson could not have picked a better time to unveil a rail services decarbonisation strategy than the summer of 2020.

Lockdown restrictions had, for the first time, started to ease, but with the majority of the country still working from home, demand for trains remained exceptionally low.

Amid the lull, Matheson pinpointed 2035 as the point at which passenger trains would stop being powered by diesel, with freight trains following in their wake.

For William Wilson, chief executive of Siemens Mobility Limited in the UK, it was a bold move that puts Scotland at the forefront of the decarbonisation agenda.

The company has a clear interest in Scotland’s rail network, having manufactured some of the ScotRail fleet and supplied the signalling infrastructure for a range of projects including the revamped Queen Street Station in Glasgow.

Wilson says that while the Scottish Government’s plan is an ambitious one, he believes it will be achievable if a range of technologies and policies are employed. Electrification, he believes, is going to be key.

“Central government [Westminster] believes electrification is too costly,” he says.

“I’m heartened by what they are saying in Scotland about wanting to move towards electrification, although there does need to be a focus on the cost. As a company we are committed to driving down this cost and have implemented a number of Scotland-specific solutions to help Scottish Government achieve their target cost of under £2m per kilometre.”

The simplest way to decarbonise the rail network would be to take all diesel-powered trains out of service and replace them with electric ones, but to do so would require every line in the country to be suitable for electric trains to run on.

While cost could be a barrier, Wilson says another problem the Scottish Government will encounter is that there are sections of track where overhead electricity lines cannot currently be installed due to the terrain.

In other areas, such as under Victorian bridges or viaducts, electrification has historically been very expensive, but recent innovations have significantly reduced project costs and shortened delivery times. 

“For some lines, where full electrification is not viable, the government will have to look at alternatives of clean, self-powered trains, either hydrogen or battery technology,” he says.

“For shorter areas of unelectrified track, an electric train with a battery on board could be used instead of diesel. Based on early works, a relevant example could be the Stranraer line where there will be discontinuous electrification.”

This approach would also provide an option for dealing with infrastructure such as tunnels, with Wilson suggesting that this would keep costs to a minimum by allowing the government to electrify only “the straightforward bits”.

“Stations are always complex areas,” he says. “And no one wants to shut a station. A solution would be to charge batteries when there is a straight run of electrified track, and then use battery power to travel through the stations.”

For longer sections of routes that are not electrified, such as the far north lines between Inverness and Thurso, hydrogen technology could be used. 

Wilson says: “Hydrogen could be an ideal solution here. Our hydrogen trains have a range of up to 600 miles and a speed of 100mph, with similar acceleration to electric trains.”    

It’s an area in which the organisation has expertise. Siemens Mobility and Siemens Energy are developing complete hydrogen systems for rail – from the train, to refuelling infrastructure, to the supply of hydrogen.

Siemens is working on two related projects, the first a hydrogen rail project in partnership with Deutsche Bahn in Germany and the second a 30-month test with the state government of Bavaria and railway company Bayerische Regiobahn. Siemens Energy and Siemens Gamesa have also invested in developing an industrial scale system capable of harvesting green hydrogen from offshore wind.

Away from the railways themselves, Wilson says policies need to be introduced to encourage people to start using trains rather than cars if the government’s 2035 target is to be met.

“A lot of what we’re working towards is a modal shift...We want to get people out of their cars,” says William Wilson of Siemens Mobility Limited

One way would be to start charging people for using the most polluting types of cars – the so-called toxicity or ‘clean air’ tax. Another would be to find ways to make planning journeys as simple as possible while also ensuring passengers are engaged in the decarbonisation process. 

“A lot of what we’re working towards is a modal shift,” Wilson says. “We want to get people out of their cars and away from polluting diesel combustion engines. We have to make viable alternatives really visible and it starts with the passenger. We have to really home in on how to get people out of their cars and make public transport more attractive, with a better overall experience, to cut down on emissions.”

This includes the creation of an integrated transport network. Planned, paid for and managed through a single app, it would allow for passengers to choose the right mode of transport to meet their needs – whether that’s car sharing, bikes, trains, buses or taxis.

Whilst this type of technology would help individuals play their part in the net zero plan, Wilson says it is the overarching concept of a digital railway that would really drive the efficiencies required to make decarbonisation a success. In addition to lower emissions, benefits would include reduced delays and increased efficiency and capacity. 

Work commissioned by Network Rail is currently underway to create a ‘digital twin’ of Scotland’s railway network. The data gathered will inform how the tracks are electrified without the need for surveyors to visit every inch of track. Longer term, it will also allow for better planning, Wilson says.

“The whole aim of the digital model is that you can decide what you’re going to do on the railway without having to touch it – you can keep the existing railway open,” he says.

“One of the things we are pioneering is how to get trains running closer together with the same level of safety and how to get back to the timetable when things go wrong.

“[With digitalisation] we can triple capacity on the railways and then it becomes more like a metro: if you miss your train, you can catch the next one. If a particular trains looks busy you know you can wait 10 minutes for another. A traffic management overlay means you are really controlling the railway.”

The Scottish Government stole a march on the other UK nations by publishing its decarbonisation plan early and making it as ambitious as it did. Wales and Northern Ireland both came out with their own strategies later in 2020 and both are planning to hit their net zero targets five years later than Scotland.

The plan for England was published this summer, along with its hydrogen strategy, with the expectation being that emissions south of the border will not hit net zero until 2050 - 15 years later than Scotland.

For Wilson, that puts Scotland in pole position, but it also means the country has a lot to prove – something it will need to start doing much sooner than 2035.

The UN’s COP26 climate summit, which is being held in Glasgow in November, would be the ideal place to start, he says.  

“The proof of the pudding will be in the next 18 months – key decisions need to be made for some critical schedules to be hit,” he says.

“To build a new fleet of trains from first concept to delivery is a five to seven-year cycle and certain lines have got to be electrified. There is great collaboration, Scottish stakeholders are treating the supply chain as partners, which is brilliant, and the supply chain is really committed to hitting that target. 

“COP26 would be a great time to unveil the next level of detail in the Scottish transport plan. There is a need to act quickly, especially taking into account the results of the recently published IPCC report. Meeting 2035 legislation will only happen if action is taken without delay.” 

This article was sponsored by Siemens Mobility.

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