Renewables and rolling stock, with Transport Scotland’s George Davidson

7 min


Class 385 EMU c. ScotRail

Following the release of the landmark 2035 Scottish Decarbonisation Rail Programme in July, Transport Scotland is looking leave diesel in the dust: with a 60% electric fleet already in service, what are the main priorities, challenges, and lessons to apply to Scotland’s shift to greener rolling stock? Tangent chats to George Davidson, Rolling Stock Programmes Sponsor, to find out more

What have been the key takeaways from the 2035 Decarbonisation Plan for rolling stock?

GD: In lockdown and the meantime since releasing the report, we’ve been talking to ScotRail, certainly about the fleet provision that they’ve required. Obviously as electrification moves forward and we replace diesel, it’s a question of: can we cascade the diesels, or do we need to go off-lease? There’s some choices there.

And now it’s a case of what do we need to do to procure now. There’s going to be some discontinuous electrification programmes – so that looks like we’re going to have to have electrical multiple units that have got batteries installed. We’ve been having talks with some of the manufacturers, and then later this year we can go out and do some market sounding with all of the manufacturers about what products they can offer.

Transport Scotland’s Rolling Stock Programme Director, George Davidson

We really are looking for new EMUs, and obviously the battery-powered version, to come in at around 2025/26/27, that sort of timescale. So we need to start procuring now, because it takes about four years.

On the other side of the coin, the routes which are not earmarked for electrification – the West Highland lines, and the far north lines (Inverness, Stranrar etc.) – and it’s that question of what do we replace those rail cars with?

The plan noted that more stakeholders of renewable energy sources have entered the transport sphere in Scotland. Could you give us some detail as to how the renewable industry in Scottish transport is progressing?

GD: There is a lot of activity out there: the likes of Scottish Power Renewables, for example. Also with the hydrogen buses in Aberdeen, which was a result of the Low Carbon Challenge Fund, and also the planning for the Dundee Hydrogen Fuel Cell buses. We have a scheme in Fife at Leven with that community energy, where Fife Council is going low-carbon with refuse lorries and fans and stuff, turning them hydrogen-powered.

Class 380 EMU c. Flickr

Transport and hydrogen has grown, and we’ve been shadowing that. St Andrews has just announced its hydrogen accelerator; but there’s also the Michelin Innovation Park in Dundee as well. So there’s a lot there; and I think the railway going forward is going to be an energy mix. We’re going to have full electrification on routes from Inverness to Aberdeen, so that will take out high-speed trains eventually. But we’re going to have some branch lines where decisions will need to be made to either part-electrify or not, and that’s where the electric trains with the battery will fit in.

Certainly when we were talking to the rail manufacturers four or five years ago, none of them were really interested in the likes of hydrogen fuel cells, and batteries were seen as something odd. Now it’s in their sales pitch.

And outside of popular commuter rolling stock – in areas such as freight and depots– what kinds of conversations are you having to utilise renewables for these stakeholders?

GD: On the freight side, we’re conscious about collaborating with the freight community as well. I’ve been having discussions with colleagues internally and Network Rail that discontinuous electrification to Inverness and Aberdeen doesn’t really help the freight community, because they are going to need to use diesel-electric locomotives to pull the freight trains, obviously. The battery or the hybrid or the fuel cell locomotives just isn’t there for these guys yet – as is the Caledonian Sleeper.

With rail manufacturers four or five years ago, none of them were really interested in the likes of hydrogen fuel cells, and batteries were seen as something odd. Now it’s in their sales pitch

The other thing is the changes to rolling stock: there needs to be an increase in investment in depot and maintenance facilities. If there’s a change in the fuel that they use, let’s call it hydrogen for example, then there has to be a transition period as well, when they’re still running diesel trains and they’re running onto that.

Class 158, set to be phased out in the next decade c. Flickr

The other factor to think of is that this legacy stock from the British Rail Regional Railways days is all two-car multiple units – apart from the Class 170s. So, when we replace the Class 158s and 156s, we’ll probably go down the road of three-car units. The units themselves will be getting longer, which means that stabling roads and even terminal stations will come under pressure in their capacity.

Under the broader discussion from the decarbonisation plan, the plan highlighted how the supply of alternative traction methods will create significant prospects for sustainable jobs in Scotland. How would you assess Transport Scotland’s proactiveness in working with the private sector to build these skills bases in sustainable transport?

GD: I don’t think our approach to liaising with any manufacturers is based on whether they’re based here in the UK or not, or Scottish-based. It’s like everything else – locally, it’s a case of Scottish Government getting its budget from Westminster, so it’s a question of how much you can spend of that in Scotland.

The world is moving on; this must be what it was like when we went from steam to diesel-electrics and diesel multiple units in the 50s and 60s

Unfortunately recently we’ve lost Glasgow works overhaul centre, which was Gemini Rail. And then Wabtech has recently moved out of their Kilmarnock base, but fortunately Brodie Engineering has taken that over as well. But it’s not just the industrial capability – it’s about the skills and employment for young people, as well.

We have an organisation called skills development Scotland; again, working with them and Scottish Enterprise, and we mention the Hydrogen Accelerator, it’s important to develop that knowledge and skills base as something we can use for our transport network, but at the same time as an export side to that, as well. I don’t just mean England, Wales, Ireland etc., but across to mainland Europe and further to the world.

The world is moving on; this must be what it was like when we went from steam to diesel-electrics and diesel multiple units in the 50s and 60s. This is another big change for us, and we need to upskill people, we need to get younger people involved and get their skills up to standard. But there’s other things there: we have a number of companies based here in Scotland producing battery technologies. We need to capitalise on that kind of stuff, and that’s where we’ll work with Scottish Enterprise to do that.

Tim will be speaking at Peloton’s On-Track Carbon Reduction Virtual Seminar on 20 August at 3.00pm. Click here to register for free!


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