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Emissions-slashing hybrid trains to hit tracks in Europe

Battery, cable, and diesel combo as there are plenty of non-electrified lines

Japanese manufacturer Hitachi Rail and Italy's Trenitalia have unveiled a triple hybrid locomotive that they claim halves carbon emission compared with the trains they replace.

The "Blues train" is suitable to carry passengers throughout the European network and is powered by a combination of batteries, electric cable, and diesel engines. Unveiled at the world's largest rail transport fair, InnoTrans in Berlin, the train will make up the first "tri-mode" fleet when it enters service in Europe later this year.

Trenitalia has agreed to buy up to 135 trains worth €1.2 billion (c $1.2 billion).

Able to reach a top speed of 160km/h, the train can operate seamlessly on electrified and non-electrified lines, the manufacturer said. On electrified routes, it uses pantographs to draw power from the overhead lines.

However, when it moves to non-electrified lines, usually smaller regional routes, a combination of battery and diesel power takes over. When it is near a station, the batteries power the train completely, eliminating emissions including harmful nitrogen oxide and reducing noise pollution, it said. The battery is able to recharge while the train is in operation, both in diesel and electric mode.

Andrew Barr, Group CEO of Hitachi Rail, said: "The Blues train, with its pioneering battery hybrid technology, is a hugely important way for railways across Europe to reduce their carbon emissions, while improving passengers' journeys."

Neither Hitachi nor Trenitalia has offered an explanation as to why they decided to call it the Blues train, although the genre of African-American music has frequently drawn inspiration from rail travel – Junior Parker's "Mystery Train", Elizabeth Cotton's "Freight Train," and Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" being prime examples.

Over in the US, railtech provider Wabtec, short line operator Genesee & Wyoming and Carnegie Mellon University have asked Congress to consider funding a public-private partnership for R&D and commercialization initiatives that would increase freight rail utilization and decarbonization of the freight rail network in America, unveiling their first battery-electric freight train in Pittsburgh last year.

Electrified rail is used on less than 1 percent of US tracks but one expert estimates that 15 to 30 percent of the 90,000 to 95,000 route miles operated by the Class I railroads in the US could potentially be electrified.

Those promoting trains as the future of zero-carbon travel have been keen to draw attention to hydrogen as a revolutionary fuel. German manufacturer Siemens is partnering with Deutsche Bahn to develop a prototype train in Germany, which began tests this month.

Meanwhile, the Alstom Coradia iLint runs on the 100 percent hydrogen rail route in Bremervörde, Germany.

In the UK, the Railway Industry Association is calling on the government to throw its weight behind a new fleet of hydrogen-powered trains to help modernize existing rolling stock.

Quite where all the hydrogen is going to come from is another question. In principle, the universe's most abundant element can be electrolyzed from water using renewable energy. In practice, the vast majority of industrial hydrogen comes from natural gas [PDF] through a process which can be doubly polluting with greenhouse gasses.

So, for now, train makers like Hitachi strive to get more efficiency out of existing technologies, which might be just the ticket. ®

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