Turning a 1960s locomotive into a 2060s motive power pioneer

A UK technology company is working on transforming a class 37 diesel locomotive from the 1960s into a hybrid motive power unit that could see service into the 2060s. Motive Zero, the company behind the project is also working on an even earlier design, the pre-war shunter designated class 08, with the same ambition.

Testing is underway for two retro locomotives, both retrofitted with bang up-to-date hybrid power technology. Decarbonisation specialists Motive Zero has become the first company to occupy facilities at the Dudley Very Light Rail site in the English West Midlands, a local-authority and central government backed research and testing facility. The hybrid project has also attracted an award from the Department for Transport and Innovate UK’s ‘First of A Kind’ rail innovation and scientific research programme.

Economic regeneration

Motive Zero and their partner, Meteor Power, will use the recently opened test track to undertake pioneering work to hybridise a Class 37 diesel locomotive as well as a Class 08 diesel shunter, making them cleaner and more energy efficient. The project supports Dudley’s civic ambition to become a recognised international centre for rail innovation.

Funding for the facility was agreed with the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), to the tune of 13 million pounds (14.5 million euros). The combined local authority has also supported the Very Light Rail (VLR) scheme as part of its wider vision for the West Midlands. The industrial region, widely known as the Black Country, has suffered economic decline, which projects like this and the building of HS2 are seen as examples of sunrise regenerative developments.

Pre war design updated for new century

The class 37 was, for decades, a main stay of freight and passenger operations in the UK. Over 300 units were built at works in the North of England during the first half of the 1960s. The units, with a characteristic running note earning them the nickname ‘growlers’, are still in widespread daily service, with nearly 70 registered for operations.

For the avoidance of doubt, and despite appearances, the alternative fuel system for this class 08 at the North Tyneside Steam Railway is not coal (Image Paul Rowland)

Even older, the class 08 shunter was developed from a design that first ran in 1932, pre-dating the nationalisation of the British railway network by sixteen years. Although largely redundant due to changed markets and work practices, around 100 units still remain active, about ten percent of the entire production run. However, the technology partners see potential to prove their updates and encourage more conversion work on a wider range of motive power.

Freight sector largely unsupported

“It has been fascinating to hear the team speak about the game changing technologies they are exploring”, said Dudley Councillor Simon Phipps, the cabinet member for regeneration and enterprise. “I’m delighted to welcome Motive Zero as we take the next steps on our journey to becoming global leaders in rail innovation and greener transport solutions.

Dudley Council is supporting the Very Light Rail national innovation centre as part of a wider economic initiative for the West Midlands (WikiCommons)

Mike Edwards, the director at Motive Zero, said that it was passenger rail that usually grabbed the headlines leaving the freight sector largely unsupported when it comes to reducing emissions. “Retrofit hybrid electric powertrain conversions allows freight operators to reduce operating costs and leverage existing asset value, thus reducing capital expenditure and avoiding the high greenhouse emissions generated by building new locomotives. Once proven, Motive Zero will attract work to convert many other locomotives on the Dudley site, to help move the rail freight industry towards net zero emissions.”

Grand Prix finish is just the start

An operating company, the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO) has been set up to oversee the operation of the Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre. The obvious emphasis may not be on freight, but if turning heavy old diesel locomotives into more eco-friendly hybrid units works for Motive Zero, then rail freight can once again lead the way for the industry and the national economy as a whole.

Motive Zero, originally based at Silverstone grand prix circuit, make their move as the popular British Touring Car Championship welcomed its first competitor in a hybrid vehicle. The race, coincidentally held at Silverstone, didn’t see a breakthrough win, but hybrid technology is steadily moving up the starting grid.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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