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.

Rail freight emits 75% less greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of freight moved compared to the road freight sector.

For more information, see Rail transport opportunities to save.


Research and development is currently underway internationally in a number of areas to assist the improvement of fuel efficiency in the rail transport sector including:

Diesel locomotive engines – fuel injection/combustion and in-cylinder controls, exhaust gas utilization, sensors and controls

Fuel-use optimisation – operations optimisation, train fleet management, wheel/rail friction reduction, aerodynamics, rolling resistance

Alternative drive-train engines and electrification of rail – hybrid engines, homogeneous-charge compression ignition (HCCI), fuel cells, gas turbines, locomotive electrification, dynamic braking

Traction control – advanced traction control systems can reduce wasted energy and track wear caused by slippage.

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