Battery Power Can Help to Transform Diesel Trains and Trams

By Hubert Yoshida posted 02-17-2021 21:52

On the first day of his presidency, President Joseph Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement which is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century. More and more countries, regions, cities and companies are establishing carbon neutrality targets. This trend is most noticeable in the power and transport sectors and has created many new business opportunities for early movers. While the U.S. has not established a carbon neutrality target as yet, President Biden had stated during his campaign for Presidency that he wants to make the United States Carbon neutral by 2050. That would be a major challenge considering where the U.S. is today.


However, there are some major technology breakthroughs which may make this possible, especially in the area of transportation. Everyone is aware of the continuing breakthroughs in electric vehicles, and major commitments to EV by large auto makers like, GM, Toyota, and Volkswagen. However, a large part of freight transportation in the U.S. is carried on Diesel railroads which generate a lot of CO2 and is much more expensive to convert to electricity due to the need for electrified rail infrastructure.

Hitachi is a major player in the Rail Industry and is working to address this with battery powered trains which can run on non-electrified rails. Hitachi has built one of the world’s first battery powered train fleets that operates in Japan and recently announced the trial of a battery train in the UK and delivery of hybrid trains in Italy. In addition to trains, Hitachi announced that
Hitachi Rail successfully tested its first battery-powered tram in Florence – an important milestone towards expanding the firm’s offer to market the vehicles in major cities across the world. Battery powered trams eliminate the need for electrified infrastructure, overhead wires supported by poles or pylons – that are expensive to install and visually unattractive. The trial involves installing battery packs on an existing Hitachi-built Sirio tram, which covered a section of the line under battery power. The innovation allows power to be returned to the batteries when the train breaks, reducing the overall amount of energy consumed and protecting the environment.


In the U.S., battery powered trains might be the only way for the U.S. to catchup with the rest of the developed countries in Asia and Europe in the use of electric trains. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, electrified rail is currently used on less than 1 percent of U.S. railroad tracks while electricity supplies more than one-third of the energy that powers trains globally. During much of the 20th century, U.S. railroads were the world leaders in innovation and in the use of cutting-edge technology. They now lag behind many other advanced nations, which have been investing for many years in electric-powered railroads.
Rail operators in many other industrialized countries chose to switch to electric locomotives, partly because the railroads were owned by the governments of those countries, which could better afford the necessary transmission infrastructure. U.S. railroads have always been a regulated private sector industry, making it much harder for U.S. railroad companies to finance electrification upgrades than to build diesel-fueled systems. Electrifying the rails at this time would be cost prohibitive. However, battery powered trains would require considerably less infrastructure cost to convert to electric power.

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Hitachi has made progress on the practical application of technologies for installing high-capacity lithium-ion batteries in rolling stock and using them for traction power. In particular, use of batteries in rolling stock that runs on non-electrified sections of track can save energy, minimize noise, and reduce maintenance requirements compared with conventional diesel railcars. Hitachi has successfully commercialized a battery-powered train that can run on non-electrified sections of track by using energy stored in batteries that are charged from the alternating current overhead lines and delivered it as the JR Kyushu Series BEC819. A Review document on the latest Hitachi technologies and outlook on battery -powered drive systems is available on this website.