Millions of tons of coal were burnt when railways were steam-hauled. The result was harmful pollution and working conditions that would be unacceptable today. When steam was replaced, it was by, what was then considered to be cleaner, diesel traction. Today, there is political pressure to reduce both the emissions from diesel engines and the CO2 they produce.

With their green credentials, railways have escaped the tighter diesel engine emission standards imposed on road vehicles. The industry could also claim that, where railways aren’t electrified, diesel is the only possible type of traction. However, at InnoTrans in 2016, Alstom unveiled its hydrogen-powered Coradia iLint multiple unit to show this was no longer the case.

As we explain this month, hydrogen-powered trains are now technically and economically feasible as fuel cells have become smaller and increased wind generation capacity offers significant surplus overnight power that can be stored as hydrogen energy. It is no coincidence that the Alstom iLint’s first customer is Lower Saxony, Germany’s leading wind-power state.

Hydrogen is not a primary fuel, it is an energy vector that can be produced on demand. Hence the price of hydrogen is the capital and maintenance cost of the equipment that produces it, and so, unlike imported fuel oil, hydrogen offers known fuel costs and self-sufficiency. These benefits drive initiatives such as proposals to increase Europe’s hydrogen-powered bus fleet from a hundred to a thousand by 2020.

For all its advantages, hydrogen is not a universal solution. With diesel having eight times the energy density of the hydrogen in the iLint’s roof mounted tanks, a hydrogen locomotive would require an additional rail vehicle to carry its fuel. Running hydrogen trains under the wires wastes energy by adding an unnecessary energy conversion step. Electric trains can be powered from renewables, for example Dutch railways have specified wind power for their traction supply.

It is therefore wrong to consider hydrogen trains as an alternative to electrification. Instead, they complement it by offering an environmentally acceptable alternative beyond the wires. As the environment becomes an increasingly important issue, hydrogen is a solution that Government and the rail industry must support.

The ecosystem is another environmental issue that cannot be ignored. A case in point was the urgent work needed to keep the railway open by the River Taw. As Mark Phillips explains, completion of this work within its demanding four months’ timescale was only made possible by the impressive engagement with Environmental Agency and other affected stakeholders.

Another project that required constructive relationships between all concerned was transforming London Bridge’s platform layout and constructing the station’s vast new concourse, as Colin Carr describes. Significant capacity improvements are about to be delivered by this work and its associated signalling and track improvements that, as we describe, required 154 new switches and crossings.

In another feature, we show how signalling enhancements will enable extra trains to be run in Cornwall from December 2018.

Trains are now using the Ordsall Chord which, from May, will divert them away from the throat at Manchester Piccadilly to provide much needed capacity improvements. As we explain, uncertainty surrounds the scheme to build additional platforms at Piccadilly that would provide further capacity – it has been suggested that a digital railway solution would avoid the need for them.

Electric trains with extra coaches are now running on the main line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. This was the most newsworthy of the electrification programme’s three milestones reached on 10 December. We report on an essential, but not so visible milestone, the opening of Millerhill’s servicing depot.

The introduction of computer based train control (CBTC) and will provide extra capacity on London Underground’s sub surface lines. Part of this project is the new Hammersmith Service Control Centre, which is featured in an article by Clive Kessell that also describes how simulators are an essential part of the programme to train hundreds of operational staff and drivers on the new system. With Hammersmith about to go live, Nigel Wordsworth explains the project’s implementation strategy, how CBTC equipment is being fitted to the lines’ S stock trains at Derby and the programme’s intensive testing programme.

Our round-up feature on station projects shows that CP5 has seen 21 new stations and others rebuilt, with many provided with new and extended platforms. This work gives more people access to the rail network as well as supporting capacity improvement programmes. Also underpinning the drive for more capacity are improvements to the telecoms network, as Paul Darlington describes.

Malcolm Dobell’s three reports from the various events he has attended shows there was much to learn from them. The Vehicle/Track System Interface Committee’s annual seminar included an explanation of the work done to reduce rail breaks from the pre-Hatfield figure of around 750 a year to less than a hundred. The Rail Research UK Association’s annual conference highlighted many useful joint industry/academia research projects, whilst the IMechE’s technical study tour, organised by its Railway Division, provided a valuable insight into other countries’ railway engineering practices.

Whether its powering trains by hydrogen, increasing capacity or reducing rail breaks, our writers have enjoyed finding out about the many worthwhile initiatives that will improve our railway. We hope you will enjoy reading about them!


Read more: A short story of a railway and its river