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The United Kingdom is adapting its old diesel trains to power them with hydrogen.
What would become of all those black and white farewells at train stations without a thick cloud of smoke and steam? Steam locomotives have achieved a truly iconic status in our culture, besides spearheading the first industrial revolution. Of course, they fell out of fashion a long time ago, replaced by diesel models first, then by electric ones and finally by high speed maglev trains. Some of the latest models, however, will be soon leaving a steam trail once again. Alstom, the French train manufacturer and Eversholt Rail, a British company, have joined forces to develop a new generation of hydrogen-power locomotives. The technological project intends to adapt older diesel models instead of manufacturing them from scratch. Fittingly, this will be happening in the cradle of the steam locomotive, where Richard Trevithick built his first prototype back in 1804.
The consortium will retrofit the existing Class 321 trains used in the UK with hydrogen systems so as to operate as Hydrogen Multiple Units (HMU) under the code-name of Breeze. The goal of this innovative project is to achieve a clean and eco-friendly train that can run without any harmful carbon dioxide emissions in routes which are unlikely to benefit from electrification. Another advantage of these adapted engines is that, besides fitting in the old locomotives, they will provide more space for passengers as the hydrogen tanks will be installed at the head and tail of the train. By using this innovative technology, the new engines will operate silently at speeds up to 90 mph with a 620-mile range. The agreement covers the adaptation of a hundred trains, which will be in operation by early 2021.
Currently only less than half of the railway lines in the United Kingdom are electrified, which means that diesel machines must be used. Within the national government’s decarbonation goals, this technology should be phased out by the year 2040.
The UK, however, is not the only country committing to this new system. On September 2018 the first Coradia iLint hydrogen trains started operating in Germany, where they transport passengers daily in a clean and sustainable way.
Although steam locomotives are usually thought of as venerable machines that march lazily coughing up thick smoke, the fact is that at the beginning of the 20th century a conventional steam engine gave diesel technology trains a run for their money.
On the 3rd of July of 1938, a steam locomotive nicknamed Mallard, built with a double chimney and a double Kylchap blastpipe, propelled its 165 at a breathtaking speed. That day, the driver Joseph Duddington made it fly at 126 mph, claiming a world speed record in its class that has not been beaten ever since.
Following its retirement in 1963, the old Mallard now rests in the National Railway Museum in York with a small commemorative plaque recording its prowess.