A common strategy for near-term rail decarbonization in Europe is essential, new study finds

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A new European study exploring alternatives to fossil diesel use in railways has concluded that the entire rail sector needs to design a common strategy to address the challenge of transitioning from diesel to cleaner energy use if the sector is to meet European climate targets.

The study, launched in July 2022 by the Association of European Rail Rolling Stock Lessors (AERRL), Akiem, Beacon Rail and Cargounit, with support from Crédit Agricole CIB, ING, KfW IPEX-Bank and Societe Generale, and carried out by industrial consulting firm eolos, examined the EU regulatory framework and certain national strategies, providing a preliminary assessment of technology alternatives.

The qualitative and quantitative research – including extensive stakeholder consultations and workshops with AERRL members – produced unique insights into technological maturity as well as infrastructure and supply chain readiness.

AERRL has now released an initial roadmap of technology alternatives for the years to 2050, based on the results of the study. According to the roadmap, while electrification remains the most efficient solution from a holistic perspective, complementary solutions can help to accelerate decarbonization.

“HVO is rated as an immediate candidate,” the roadmap noted. “It can reduce CO2 emissions by 85-90% and is easy to implement. Obstacles due to higher taxation can and should be adjusted by future regulation. RNG and Ammonia ICE are considered short- to medium-term options, though several operational challenges remain.

“Hydrogen has a high energy density (per kilogram), but “green production” is still very limited and requires high expenditure. It is an option for applications where no other solution is available (e.g., long non-electrified routes) and after substantial infrastructure improvements are achieved. Though major problems remain, battery technology is a solution for the rail sector. Especially dual-mode battery/electric trains combined with partial electrification for the longer term could become a game-changer,” the roadmap continued.

AERRL stressed that to enable the sustainable transition of the rail sector, the different stakeholders need to come together in a “freight transport system for efficiency,” organized either by the European Commission or an appointed actor in the field. “The investments between rolling stocks and infrastructure need to be balanced,” it added.

The roadmap added, “To achieve maximum leverage for industrial decarbonization, the rail sector should be, after pipelines, the first choice for green hydrogen transport. With such a position in a new supply chain, the rail sector can increase its freight market share and provide safe and reliable low carbon-emission energy to today’s most emissive industries.”

Fabien Rochefort, AERRL chair, said, “An ambitious and aligned roadmap for near-term decarbonization is currently the missing link in European policy. HVO can contribute very easily to short-term decarbonization of existing diesel-powered fleets. Battery-electric technology seems to be a likely game-changer for the medium and long term. Hydrogen, and potentially ammonia, could be later alternative solutions for heavy freight trains where infrastructure electrification, even partial is not available and batteries not suitable.

“Working from this initial roadmap, we hope to hold further discussions, leading to a common project with all rail stakeholders and pushing policy makers to support our willingness to promote green transportation furthermore,” he continued.

Carole Coune, AERRL secretary general, added, “We believe that decarbonization of rail rolling stock should be on the sector’s policy agenda for the coming years, but also on its research agenda. The game-changing possibilities of battery-electric technology should be prioritized for further study because of the positive impact for the future of rail rolling stock and infrastructure.”

Click here to read the full roadmap on AERRL’s website.