Adelaide cuts emissions at train stations, starts testing hydrogen buses

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The South Australian government has just launched the converted hybrid diesel trains into passenger services in Adelaide on the Outer Harbour, Grange and Belair lines. This marks the end of the test phases of hybrid diesel trains, the latest of numerous introductions and tests of more sustainable transport in the South Australian capital, including hydrogen-powered buses, battery-powered buses and fully electric trains. Two hydrogen-powered buses will now also be entering testing phases, and these will be joined by pure electric buses at the end of this month.

The two-car diesel hybrid train entering passenger services is the first of 44 diesel railcars to be retrofitted with the Energy Storage and Recovery System by late 2024. The new systems enable the trains to turn off their polluting engines at stations so that commuters are spared the noise and smell of diesel engines. The trains will still run on fossil fuels, with the batteries gathering kinetic energy from the trains’ braking systems and storing it in a battery system. When the trains are stopped at stations, their systems switch to electrical energy, cutting out the smell and sound of the diesel engine while the train is stationary.

While it keeps polluting vehicles in operation, the retrofitting makes the most of the service life of old trains while alleviating some of the more unpleasant and palpable effects of diesel engines – the smell and the noise. The retrofitted diesel trains have been covered and rebranded with bright green wrap.

Trial and error

South Australian Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Tom Koutsantonis, explained: “Reducing our environmental impact and using significantly less fuel, this new hybrid train also offers a great customer experience, particularly at Adelaide Railway Station where the diesel engine can remain off – reducing noise and fumes for those on board and in the station.”

The hybrid diesel trains are said to have energy savings of “up to 20%,” and better fuel efficiency should result in savings of $1.3 million (USD 830,000) per year. Earlier this year, the government predicted that operational would be reduced by $4 million over the remaining service life of the fleet. The upgrading of the state’s 70 diesel rail cars is part of a $10 million 2021-22 State Budget initiative.

But more than just saving on fuel costs and rebranding fossil-fuelled vehicles with the bright green, minister Koutsantonis explains: “We are about exploring any technologies or solutions to decarbonise and deliver a net zero-emissions public transport system.”

This is also the case with more sustainable and longer-lasting technologies, such as Adelaide’s purely battery electric buses, hydrogen-fuelled buses and purely electric trains. Here, the vehicles not only have zero tailpipe emissions, but they also represent longer-lasting infrastructural developments more integrated into Australian domestic industries.  In August this year, the South Australian government announced that the 42-kilometre-long Gawler rail line would begin running with all-electric trains as another new train entered service.

Buses with no tailpipe emissions

Along with the diesel hybrid trains, two hydrogen-electric buses began trials in the South Australian capital with two Foton Hydrogen Fuel Cell Buses. These will be joined by fully battery-electric buses by the end this month. Experience from other continents shows that purely battery-electric heavy-duty vehicles and hydrogen-fueled electric vehicles have different advantages for different circumstances.

While hydrogen-powered heavy-duty vehicles do well on steep terrain and extremely cold weather – both elements of which affect the efficiency of batteries – deciding between hydrogen and purely battery-powered heavy-duty vehicles also involves a number of different, more complex factors, such as the availability and cost of green hydrogen, and the regional energy circumstances. For example, while storing energy in batteries is more effective for frequent discharge, hydrogen becomes more cost-effective when storing large amounts of energy for longer periods, and even more so where it can be generated close to the source of renewable energy, therefore bypassing energy transport costs. How the two very complimentary technologies cover transport services is a matter of trial and error, now being undertaken by Adelaide Metro.

While Adelaide is flat and warm, hydrogen-powered heavy-duty vehicles are conceivably well-suited to Australian terrain with greater distances. Hydrogen fuel cell systems have greater power density than batteries and can, therefore, run for longer periods before refuelling.

The new hydrogen-powered Foton buses will be fuelled with green hydrogen produced at Tonsley Innovation District. When announcing the hydrogen bus trials at the end of July, the government stated: “This trial will exploit innovative local supply chain solutions, gauge the economic benefits of renewable energy and harness local talent as part of the South Australian government’s pioneering work to support local industry into a green future.”

Elsewhere in the world, the USA just announced a USD $7 billion ($11 billion) package for hydrogen hubs, which is set to become a magnet for talent and investment, while Alstom – the company providing Adelaide’s zero-emission trains – is being set back in the UK as the government cuts funding to its Aventra programme, days after ministers scrapped the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2, a new high-speed railway that is supposed to form the backbone of Britain’s transport network.

These kinds of policy decisions affect the economic environment of clean technologies. Countries investing in these technologies snap up opportunities and skills left dangling by those countries unable to commit. Earlier this month, the Australian government opened to Expressions of Interest for its $2 billion Hydrogen Headstart program, which seeks to bridge the commercial gap between the cost of producing green hydrogen and the market price for large-scale projects.

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