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The Low Emissions Railway

By Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries |


A Coradia iLint train on a commercial test run in Austria on 21 September 2020 (photo © ALSTOM / Christoph Busse).

A Coradia iLint train on a commercial test run in Austria on 21 September 2020 (photo © ALSTOM / Christoph Busse).

There’s a lot of talk these days about the decarbonisation of Europe’s railways. It’s not just a question of securing electricity from clean, non-carbon energy sources. The real challenge is getting rid of diesel trains.

Of the powered modes of transport, rail beats air and road travel in terms of environmental impact, but only insofar as the trains are powered from clean energy. So, as countries plan to reduce carbon emissions in the years ahead, replacing old diesel trains with modern electric services is a sensible priority. But, as we show below, there are other options - notably the iLint hydrogen trains manfactured by Alstom.

Across Europe, and more widely, there are huge variations in the extent to which national rail networks are electrified. Across the 25 countries in the European Union which have railways – Cyprus and Malta have none – well over half of the entire network is electrified.

Clean Switzerland

Switzerland tops the all-Europe clean list with a network which is pretty well entirely electrified. The Swiss Federal Railways retired its only diesel multiple unit passenger trains way back in 1977. Other EU nations which now have only a dwindling number of diesel-powered passenger services are Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Italy. Among the non-EU countries which rank well are Montenegro (which has only a small rail network) and Norway.

Challenges in Ireland and Denmark

Looking at the bottom of the league table, Ireland has a pitifully small amount of electrified railway. Indeed, the only stretch we can think of is the DART line from Greystones through Dublin to Malahide, plus the branch from that route to Howth. The Baltic States and Greece don’t look good. Surprisingly, nor does Denmark where less than a third of the rail network is electrified – although, in fairness, a major programme of route electrification is now underway in Denmark which will see trains running under overhead wires to network extremities in North Jutland and Lolland in the next few years.

The British strategy

The country which faces a Herculean challenge in creating a low-emission railway for the 21st century is Britain. Over 60% of the national network depends entirely on diesel trains – or on newer bi-mode trains which rely on electric power when running under the wires but then switch to diesel as they move onto non-electrified lines.

So it was good to see the publication last month of a strategy for the decarbonisation of the railways in England, Wales and Scotland. The document suggests an ambitious programme of electrification, but notes that the rail industry’s capacity to deliver major electrification on time and to budget is very questionable. Intriguingly, the strategy also suggests that “battery and hydrogen operations should start as soon as possible to allow the technology to mature.”

Last week we saw the news that Britain now has a prototype of a hydrogen-powered train which may enter revenue service in 2023 or thereafter. All well and good, but a real sign of early commitment to hydrogen-powered trains would be for Britain to invest in the Coradia iLint trains, while continuing with its own research and development programme. Coradia iLint hydrogen-powered trains were first showcased in 2016 at Innotrans in Berlin, and entered regular passenger service less than two years later.

Battery trains

Hydrogen trains clearly have a role in decarbonisation of passenger operations, and so too do battery trains. Interestingly, Britain had one of Europe’s earliest experiments in battery-powered passenger trains.

We have an old Bradshaw timetable which reveals how sixty years ago passengers travelling on the Dee Valley line from Aberdeen to Ballater could choose between diesel and battery power. Three trains a day on the 70-kilometre route were operated by regular diesel railcars (which had replaced steam on the line in 1958), while the other three departures relied on an experimental battery train. Perhaps delving back into railway history will provide insights into future options as Europe’s railways step up to the challenge of building a low or zero-emissions network.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
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About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book was published in 2022 and reprinted in July 2023. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.


Thomas Davies , 14 October 2020

What makes me angry is the UK government spending billions on HS2 to benefit a few and cut a few minutes off the journey time between London and the north of England when they could have spent that money by upgrading the rail network in various parts of the country for the benefit of many. As far as I am aware we have no electrified lines here in Wales, and if we want to travel by train between north and south Wales we have to go east into England. I'm sure there are third-world countries with better rail networks than we have here in Wales.

Niklas Smith, 12 October 2020

To be fair to Denmark, until the Great Belt Fixed Link was opened in 1998 all trains between the capital Copenhagen and Jutland (the bit of Denmark that is part of continental Europe) had to travel on train ferries, which made electrification impractical (you can't run a catenary into a ferry, so electrically powered trains would have needed diesel shunters to take them in and out of the ferries). But of course in hindsight Denmark should have decided to go over to electic traction on all main lines when they decided to build the Great Belt Fixed Link, as electric trains make great sense on busy routes with frequent stops (i.e. all the main Danish lines) because of their high acceleration. If so then they would have avoided the expensive purchase of dud diesel trains (IC4) from Ansaldobreda...

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