Electrifying public transport

The last post, on the history of solar, was originally going to be a more involved history of solar trains. But it got too long. So I cut the trains stuff out. Still, the trains bit is fun in its own right, and I still have my notes (and a day off work) and tis the season for leftovers, so here it is. A bonus piece before I post the final installment of Climate Stories in a few days.

Earlier this month, the charity I work for released some new research on the possibility of solar-powered trains.

Solar trains aren’t entirely new. Back in 1878, Augustin Mouchot won a Gold Medal at the Paris World Exhibition for his solar steam engine. It was cool, but it wasn’t going to shift a machine that could transport you and your neighbours to work every day. For that, you needed coal, or petrol, or the movement of electrons (which in turn, back then, possibly meant burning coal first too).

Like the electric car, electric trains are very much something of the past, as well as the future. They’ve been around since the 1830s. One was even tested on the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway in 1842. But the limited range of the battery meant it wasn’t really viable. So the story goes, it ended up in a shed, finally destroyed by rail workers who were scared for their jobs.

Then Werner von Siemans (of the electrical appliances company fame) built an electric passenger train in Berlin in 1870. An electric tram soon followed, near Berlin. Magnus Volk's Electric Railway opened soon after, in 1883, in Brighton. Unlike the other electric railways of its era, it still runs along the seafront there. Volk also built the shorter-lived electric railway which ran along the shallow coastal waters of Brighton beach.

Teetering along on 23-feet high stilts it was nicknamed the daddy-long-legs, and must have been quite a sight. 

Electric trams soon started popping up in cities all over the world. First in Russia, near Saint Petersburg, in 1880, then Germany, Austria, the US, Australia and more.

In Northern Ireland, the world’s first hydroelectric powered tram opened in 1883, linking the seaside town or Portrush to the Giant's Causeway, powered by 104 horsepower water-turbines at Walkmill Falls.

Dunluce Castle & Giant's Causeway Tram, c 1890

Dunluce Castle & Giant's Causeway Tram, c 1890

In 1890, an electric underground railway - the ‘tube’ - started ferrying Londoners under the river from the City to Stockwell. It was initially going to work with a cable. Imagine the cable cars that run up and down the hills of San Francisco, but under the river Thames. But the cable company went bust (possibly due to the challenges of this line) so they tried the then experimental approach of an electrical 'third rail' under the train instead. And it worked.

It’s the same line I take today for my commute to work, though it looks a bit different these days.

Electric railways made particular sense in cities, especially where you were building tunnels where the fumes of a coal-powered train could get dangerous. Railroad entrances to New York City had similar problems to the London tube. A collision in the Park Avenue tunnel in 1902 led to a ban on smoke-generating trains south of Harlem River. In response, the trains went electric. In Europe, there were also mountainous areas where it made a lot of sense to go electric - partly because it was hard to get the coal round mountains, or because they were near hydro-electric sources.

It’s worth noting this use of hydro, and remembering the hydro-trams in Ireland in the 1880s. Brighton’s solar buses and projects like the are all brilliant, but public transport powered by renewable energy isn’t new.

Italian railways were the first in the world to introduce electric traction for the entire length of a main line rather than just a short stretch, with a 106 km Valtellina line opened at the start of September 1902. Tech improved throughout the 20th century, with more and more deployment of electric railways after the war. The 1980s brought particularly exciting new tech with French high speed TGVs and Japanese Shinkansen (which still sort of feel like the future to me).

Still, a lot of railways over the world found it cheaper to run on diesel. Understandable at the time, perhaps, but even leaving climate change out of the equation, it’s a huge problem for air pollution. As with cars, we badly need to make the move to electricity, and get that electricity decarbonised.

There are a few solar powered train stations - Blackfriars Bridge being by far the coolest - and some trains in India have solar panels on their roofs which help power the trains lights and fans. A dude in Australia is promoting a solar train that runs a few kilometers along disused rail line near Byron Bay, and he hopes might become a tourist attraction (it reminds me a bit of Volk’s daddy-long-legs).

None of this is going to power your trip to work though.

Our research is something else. By plugging solar farms directly into DC substations, we reckon we could power up to 20% of some key UK commuter routes, and it’ll be cheap too. In some parts of the world, trains and trams could run almost entirely on solar. As storage gets cheaper, this will just get cheaper and easier to do in a load more places.

The idea came from a community solar group in Sussex, set up in response to fracking protests there in the summer of 2013. After all the frackers and activists and press and everyone else had left, the local people were left with a question most of us get to forget about after we’ve flicked the on switch or paid the gas bill: How will we power ourselves? They decided they wanted community-own energy, and they’d pick solar.

(If you want a longer version of their story, I’ve written about it elsewhere. They are amazing and someone should make a movie about it).

Looking into places to site a solar farm, they found the grid near them full. They asked a electrical engineering professor who happened to live locally, ‘could we plug it into the trains instead?’ His answer was ‘well, feasibly…’ At first the technical challenges seemed a bit too much for a small scale community group to bother with, so they found another solar site to plug into the grid nearby.

But when solar cuts hit the UK in 2015, we dug out the idea. What had been a possible local solution to grid capacity issues a while back could now offer a larger opportunity for renewable energy in a host of other places. 

It’ll be a few years yet before we’re able to deploy the tech necessary to plug solar into the commuter routes that run through Sussex. The tech needs building, and it needs testing, but I’d be shocked if it doesn’t happen. It’s yet to be seen who harnesses this new idea, and how. It offers a new opportunity for UK community energy groups who’ve been badly constrained by the solar cuts (not to mention our weird ban on onshore wind). But a load of offer people could make a buck out of it too, and communities could be pushed out.

I’m pretty certain that in a few years, a lot of trains, in a lot of countries, will run on sunshine. Some will run on wind. And some will keep running on hydro and nuclear, just as they have for decades.

I’m just less sure who’ll own and control those bouncing electrons taking us along our way though.

And that’s a much bigger question that can be applied to a lot of the tech change around our move away from fossil fuels. It’s also the big issue I think we should be spending our time grappling with, rather than messing about with whether climate change is happening or not (or just sticking our heads in the ground).

The next climate histories post will be the last one. If you’ve enjoyed the series, why not give a few quid to the charity I work at in my day job? We help make things like solar trains happen.