Rail transport overview

The rail freight transport sector operates in a very competitive business environment, so small improvements in fuel efficiency or changes in fuel costs can have a big impact on profit and competitiveness.

Many energy efficiency measures also offer other benefits such as increased productivity and reduced maintenance costs.

Opportunities to save

Investigate weight reduction

There is potential to make cars out of lighter components such as aluminium, composites or plastics. The weight of rolling stock can also be reduced with improved design and by replacing mechanical control systems with electronic fly-by-wire systems which enables locomotives to pull more freight without exceeding load limits and save fuel on empty return runs.

Use driver assistance software

Driver assistance IT systems, such as portable loggers and GPS receivers, enable freight trains to optimise fuel-efficiency. The onboard computer calculates this based on the type of train, its location, weight, speed, fuel consumption, the gradient and curvature of the track, GPS location and driving techniques.

Investigate hybrid locomotives

Hybrid locomotives operate in a similar way to hybrid motor vehicles. Propulsion power is provided by a large battery that is recharged by a small diesel generator. A regenerative braking system can be integrated into the hybrid combination to convert kinetic energy back into electricity to be stored when braking. The hybrid system also allows the diesel generator to run at a constant speed (the most efficient operating point) and so reduce fuel consumption.

For more information, see Rail transport opportunities to save.


Solar powered trains

The world’s first 100% solar powered train began operating at Byron Bay, New South Wales, in December 2017.

In Europe, Bankset Energy Corporation is trialling a system of solar panels that clip over railway sleepers and produce 200Mw of electricity for every 1000km of track. The electricity generated would be used for overhead powerlines for trains, as well as feeding power to nearby business and residences. The company predicts that trains and rail will be 100% powered by solar energy and batteries in the near future.

Hydrogen trains

The German and UK governments have invested in hydrogen trains as part of their efforts to combat air pollution.

In September 2018, two hydrogen fuel cell powered trains took their first passengers on a 100km route in northern Germany. Emitting only steam and water condensation, the hydrogen powered trains perform similarly to their diesel rivals, comfortably cruising at 140km/h with a 1000km range and accommodation for 300 passengers.

The 30-year-old UK fleet will be retrofitted with hydrogen fuel cells and tanks, providing an alternative to electrification to cut noise and emissions on the majority of the network which is currently served by diesel trains.

Hydrogen has a lot upsides for transport applications, particularly regional trains that cover vast distances. The fuel can be loaded up and transported to where demand is, and when created from renewable energy it is entirely emissions-free.

Proponents predict that the lower running costs of hydrogen trains will mean the additional costs will pay back within 10 years.

See Renewables take to the skies, rails and roads at ARENA for more information.

More information

Australasian Rail Association

Australian Centre for Rail Innovation

Project i-TRACE Australian Rail Association

SmartRail World UK