UK first rail freight electrification trial boosts industry net zero ambitions
The UK’s first retractable electrification system for rail freight has taken the wires to the loading bay. The industry has led the way in meeting the net-zero ambitions set out by government legislation. A public trial of a retractable overhead electrification system has proved the system in front of an invited audience and performed with satisfaction.
Engineers from Furrer+Frey GB, the UK arm of the Swiss company, designed and tested a moveable overhead conductor system, allowing electric supply to freight locomotives right into the loading bay, and then safely retract once the train is in place and return when the train needs to move again.
The Holy Grail in Northamptonshire
A rail freight terminal in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, has become the first in the UK to demonstrate an innovative overhead electrification system, which could spell the end for diesel on electrified rail routes and boost the rail freight industry’s net-zero ambitions.
The innovation of a moveable electricity supply system – dubbed by some as the Holy Grail for rail freight – overcomes the conflict between loading freight trains and overhead electrical equipment. Roll-in and roll-out of electric freight trains could significantly improve the economic competitiveness of the sector and speed up operations. The trial comes after extensive development work both in Europe and the UK.
The Decarbonisation and Electrification of Freight Terminals (DEFT) project, funded by the Department for Transport and Innovate UK, has seen partners Furrer and Frey GB, Tarmac, and GB Railfreight demonstrate a new way of decarbonising rail and lessen freight’s impact on passenger journeys.
Freight trains are typically loaded and unloaded from above, preventing the use of high voltage overhead cables. That means that a change of traction – be it diesel or battery electric shunter – is required to move in and out of terminals or abandon electric traction altogether.
Plug freight yards into electrified rail lines
Furrer and Frey’s innovative system is being trialled at an aggregate facility run by Tarmac in Wellingborough. The traction partners are GB Railfreight. The facility is adjacent to the Midland Mainline (MML), which is currently being electrified and upgraded by Network Rail to increase overall capacity as part of the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan.
“The electrification of freight terminals is the biggest technological hurdle to net-zero rail freight, and we have just overcome it”, said Noel Dolphin, Head of UK projects at Furrer and Frey GB. “The demonstrator shows how we can plug freight yards into electrified rail lines and operate them safely and efficiently with our locomotives – meaning greener, cleaner, and better journeys.”
Proud of team and partners
If successfully adopted, the moveable overhead system could go on to be deployed at other freight terminals across the UK and support the full decarbonisation of Britain’s railways. “This moveable conductor system means trains pull in on electricity, disconnect from it to load and unload safely, then reconnect to travel on”, explained Dolphin. “I’m proud of our team and partners for getting us to this milestone moment today, showing a greener future for the industry.”
One of the leading adopters of rail freight, Chris Swan, the head of rail at Tarmac, said decarbonising transport has been highlighted as one of the key areas to help achieve net-zero across the construction industry. “Supporting this project is the latest step in developing our rail freight capabilities. “We’re always keen to explore new initiatives and innovations that can help us move materials to the right place at the right time more efficiently and sustainably.”
Could remove all diesel-only trains
The carrier, GB Railfreight, has already invested heavily in electric traction. Their CEO, John Smith, commented on the competitive advantage offered: “Rail freight is already a greener alternative to moving goods by road, but innovations like the Moveable Overhead Conductor System and electrification more broadly will allow us to go even further”. “At the same time as combatting climate change, they also bolster operations and the reliability and efficiency of rail freight. We continue to work with the UK government to fulfil our industry’s potential. This is a great example of what can be achieved when the industry and government work together effectively.”
Seamless electrification for freight could begin to see diesel traction phased out. In 2018 the UK government challenged the rail industry to remove all diesel-only trains from the network by 2040 to achieve the UK’s ambitious net-zero goals. The Furrer and Frey system on trial in Northamptonshire is based on their successful passenger depot system. It is one of 30 initiatives supported by funding from the Department for Transport in partnership with Innovate UK.