As part of the UK’s decarbonisation plans, public transport will become kinder to the enviroment with the arrival of hydrogen-powered buses and trains such as HydroFlex. Sam Ballard reports

It is incredible to think about how much the world has changed in the last six months. Industries have failed, governments have had to step in with unthinkable rescue packages and entire populations have been told to remain indoors. For most people, 2020 is a year that can’t be over soon enough.

However, life being on hold has meant a big rethinking about how our society works. Everything is suddenly on the table, from the role of the office to how we interact with our cities. One unexpected benefit of life under lockdown is the quality of the air in our metropolises.

However, it – presumably – won’t be too long before we’re back up and running. So, will things return to the way they were after the virus has abated?

According to many, the answer is a resounding no. McKinsey, the management consultancy firm, recently released a report that said: “If you’re feeling whiplash, it might be the ten years forward we just jumped in 90 days’ time.”

We are currently living in a once-in-a-generation shift in attitudes. And – fuelled by the climate crisis – that’s a conversation that is happening with our public transport networks, too. Specifically around hydrogen powered alternatives to diesel.

The UK’s rail network operates with a mix of electric and older, diesel-powered rolling stock, with 42 per cent of the network already electrified, which means trains on those lines could become zero carbon if they’re powered by a renewable source.

HydroFLEX, a joint project by the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education and Porterbrook, a rolling stock provider, could be the first hydrogen-powered train in the UK.

The ambitious project aims to entirely replace the UK’s diesel trains with HydroFLEX by 2040. The Department of Transport awarded the project £400,000 as part of Innovate UK’s First of a Kind programme.

The technology is already in use elsewhere – Germany launched the world’s first Hydrogen-powered train, the Coradia iLint, in 2018.

Hydrogen trains work via a fuel cell made up of an anode, cathode and electrolyte membrane. The hydrogen passes through the anode, and is then split into electrons and protons – the electrons create the electric charge and can be stored in lithium batteries or sent to the vehicle’s motor.

Water is created as a waste product, making the whole process much more environmentally friendly than running traditional diesel engines.

Alex Burrows, director of University of Birmingham’s Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, says: “To achieve decarbonisation of the railway we need to develop hydrogen technology, alongside electrification and batteries, as one of the means to get diesel trains off the network.

“The University of Birmingham has world class R&D capability in rail decarbonisation and I am hugely proud of our team as we continue this fantastic innovation partnership with industry to accelerate the development of clean technologies for the railway.”

Another key innovation for the decarbonisation of the UK’s public transport network is the introduction of hydrogen buses.

London already has single decker buses that are fuelled by hydrogen, while Aberdeen has embarked on a trial of the new technology.

Now, Wrightbus, the manufacturer behind the buses, has announced that it is to introduce 3,000 hydrogen buses – including double deckers – to the UK’s streets. London will be the first city in the world to get a double decker with the first running  on the city’s most polluted routes – Putney High Street and Brixton Road.

The hydrogen buses form part of London’s £300 million investment to phase out diesel buses and create 12 low-emission bus zones. It is expected that the move will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions within the zones by 84 per cent.

Jo Bamford, owner of Wrightbus, says: “Cities around the world are seeing massive reductions in air pollution as many vehicles have been kept off the road during the pandemic.

“However, the reality is that if we just go back to how public transport has traditionally been run, levels of pollution will quickly rise again to the same levels as before the crisis.

“We have an opportunity with hydrogen powered transport to make a huge difference to air quality, and for UK jobs as well. With increased orders on this scale I could increase the workforce at Wrightbus by nearly 700 per cent.

“UK-made hydrogen buses are ready to hit the streets today. We already have hydrogen buses in London, and 20 of Wrightbus’ world-leading double deckers will be added to this later this year. We also have orders from Aberdeen, with many other areas becoming interested in our technology – in the UK and across the world.”

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