Drax power station at sunset with marshland in foreground

British power generator Drax orders new WH Davis biomass fleet

Drax power station at sunsetImage by Drax

Drax, the UK’s biggest generator of renewable electricity, is expanding its rail fleet, with an order for UK built rolling stock. The iconic cooling towers of the power station complex will be better served by an investment in 30 new rail wagons. The new fleet will help to deliver the biomass needed by the power station complex to generate enough renewable power for four million UK homes. The North Yorkshire power station site is already one of rail freight’s biggest customers.

British firm WH Davis, the only remaining independent freight rolling stock manufacturer in the UK, will deliver the upgraded high-capacity wagons. The wagon order will help to further reduce Drax’s carbon emissions and make its biomass supply chain more resilient and efficient, according to the company.

A rolling programme of upgrades

The Drax fleet, currently 225 rail wagons, the first of their kind in the world, were designed and developed by Lloyd’s Register Rail (now Ricardo Rail) and WH Davis based in Mansfield, in the East Midlands. The innovative design of these new wagons has increased the amount of biomass able to be transported in each wagon by 30 per cent, allowing them to carry 71.6 tonnes of biomass each, reducing the number of rail journeys required and reducing supply chain emissions.

Freight train leaving Drax Power Station with empty biomass trucks
Ready to make another trip. A biomass freight train leaving Drax Power Station for refilling at a UK port. Drax is already one of the biggest customers on the UK rail freight scene. (Image Rail Partners)

Biomass, wood waste that is sourced mainly from overseas timber plants, and transported by rail to the generating complex, is considered a greener fuel than the fossil resources for which Drax was originally intended. A rolling programme of upgrades has seen the furnaces converted to burn the pelletised wood waste instead. Because of the lower energy density, and the need to keep supplies dry before use, specialist rail freight operations have been the most efficient means of delivering the constant supply to the site.

Increase our resilience and cut carbon emissions

The first of 30 new wagons are expected to come off the WH Davis production line early next year. They’ll go into operation delivering biomass from the Port of Tyne (Newcastle) to Drax, reducing emissions on this route by over 25 per cent.  “Our biomass trains deliver up to 30,000 tonnes of biomass to the power station each day, enabling Drax to power millions of homes and businesses across the UK with reliable, renewable electricity and support energy security”, said Bruce Heppenstall, Drax Plant Director. “It’s therefore vital that we have a robust supply chain and investing in these new wagons will further increase our resilience and cut carbon emissions on our Tyne to Drax rail route by more than a quarter, whilst continuing to support thousands of jobs across the North, including at WH Davis and Davis Wagon Services’ facilities.”

A biomass truck in front of the hoppers at Drax power station
Here’s one we made earlier. A British built biomass wagon in front of the hoppers at Drax (Network Rail)

Since it converted two thirds of its power station to use sustainable biomass instead of coal, Drax has transformed its business to become Europe’s biggest decarbonisation project and the UK’s largest single site renewable power generator, playing a critical role in energy security. Rail freight bulk deliveries, which make this operation possible, have helped this transformation has also preserved and supported jobs. Each train is able to carry sufficient biomass for Drax to generate enough reliable renewable electricity to supply around 800 UK homes for a year.

British companies can lead the world

“These additional 30 new biomass wagons reflect the strength and depth of the Davis Group, including Davis Wagon Services, to provide a full turnkey solution for customers from manufacture to maintenance”, said Jonathan Hamer, Managing Director of WH Davis. “This contract builds on the previous supply to Drax for its unique biomass wagon fleet requirements. “As the only rail freight manufacturer in the UK it is important for us to win such contracts to ensure the continuity of skills within our locally based work force. Drax’s confidence in us allows this to continue and develop.”

The importance of the order in the wider economy has not been overlooked. “This is a fantastic investment which will strengthen the UK’s energy security whilst supporting local skilled manufacturing jobs”, said Mark Fletcher, the Member of Parliament for the Bolsover constituency in which WH Davis has its headquarters. “These new wagons will help keep the lights on for many years to come, and they are a real example of how British companies can lead the world in innovation and engineering; I am proud to have such a great company based in the Bolsover Constituency.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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