The Strategist

The train of the future; being ahead of its time in sustainable transportation

Interview with Sébastien Rembauville-Nicolle, Director of strategy, marketing and Transportation markets - Forsee Power

11/17/2016 - 16:26

Rail transportation is commonly accepted as greener than travel by road; trains and tramways could be considered as the first means of sustainable mobility. For a century, a lot of progress has been made, but there is still room for further progress and improvement.

In transportations, the future seems to be electric; but as far as trains and railroad transportation it’s not quite the same, can we say that France is ahead of its time in that regard?

If we talk about electric buses, France could soon be in advance compared to the rest of the world, except compared to China, which is very much in advance (over 100,000 electric buses sold this year). If we talk about railway, we can say that our network is very much electrified, but there are still some portions that need to stay electric despite the absence of catenaries.

For example, today in France, all tramways are electric, but in some portions in city centers, there is a desire to avoid catenaries. The same goes for locomotives transporting goods in industrial areas and harbors. in many cases, they have to restart the diesel engines as soon as the trains go out of the main routes. One of the alternatives would be to embed some batteries instead of embedding traditional diesel engines.

In France, railways OEMs and operators are already thinking about the future and bringing in new solutions as far as sustainable transportation.

In past, the future of railroad transport seemed to be with the promises of trains that would be faster and faster…. is it still the case today or are we looking at other criteria for what will be the ‘train of the future’?

The train’s key advantage is to be fast from a point A to a point B. Considering the transport of passengers, clearly the speed is a key parameter to have them compete with air transportation for instance. If we speak about transportation of goods today, the problem is not so much the speed but the connectivity to the rest of the networks. In most cases, today, if you transport goods on a train, you will eventually have to reload it on a truck or on another transportation mode for it to be delivered.

What is very important is to be connected to what we call the ‘last mile’. What we can offer is flexibility: capabilities for trains to go out of main routes, without energy supply network. Or we can equip other transportations means, like trucks, to operate with batteries for the ‘last mile’ downstream of the train.

Today we also see a type of convergence between tramways and buses. Especially what we call BHNS (Buses with high level of service). Today, some bus makers can offer long buses, whether 24 meters or 18 meters. They are electric, are fully silent and with zero emissions they need much less infrastructure except for the charging stations. In that convergence, the challenges for future trains or tramways will not necessarily be the speed but the ability to be flexible and provide the same services and advantages: no emission, silence and ability to run in the long term. 

Today what specific usage of train still justify non-electric trains?

As soon as you don’t have any electric supply available, it justifies going non-electric. Today electricity is more and more distributed in terms of networks. In the future, we should see that connectivity improve as we can build solar stations in some remote areas. They can produce high quantity of energy that can be stored in batteries and then used to move the trains.

There will always be some trains that are not electric because there is absolutely no way of producing electricity in some areas. But, in more and more cases, solar plants or wind farms can be developed and they can provide the needed energy to move trains electrically, thanks to battery storage.

Technically speaking, is a fully-electric railroad system doable today?

Technically, yes, it’s feasible. The only way it’s feasible is to have that energy supply available where the train operates. In many areas, it still represents high costs to accomplish that. If you take out the catenaries completely, you can have fast charging stations maybe every one or two kilometers to recharge your batteries. We have systems without cables where batteries are recharged when making stops at the station. But to do that, you need to have electricity somewhere. Without electricity available, there is no way you can store in its batteries the necessary energy for the train to complete its journey. And it’s a lot of energy.

We often ask the question “where does the power come from”? in other words, can we imagine electric trains without power-generating infrastructures?

There is no magic! Of course, we are working on some projects with big batteries that would be embedded into one or two wagons to run on long distances. But in the end, you have to recharge it. A battery is just a storage of electricity, it’s not a generator. You have to generate energy somewhere and bring it to the train, which could also be equipped with regenerative braking system. 

Alongside railroad transports, we see more and more tramways coming back to service. What is the reason? especially when remembering that tramways were considered obsolete almost 50 years ago?

There are different reasons to that phenomenon. First it’s quite silent compared to diesel buses. Then, it’s clean in terms of emissions, which is now a key criterion for customers (cities) and citizens. It wasn’t the case a few decades ago. Thirdly, the public is more and more accepting that some areas are dedicated to public transportation.

Tramways can also be adaptable; they can be very long if you add up wagons. You can now manage peak times by adding wagons and therefore adding people with just one driver. That flow management is one of the reasons of this ‘tramway trend’. In the long term, it can be adapted to railway applications because their longevity is much longer, it can be 30 years instead of 10 to 15 years for buses.

An element that was making the tramways obsolete in the past was the need for catenaries. That’s the reason why it wasn’t accepted in some cities because catenaries aren’t so beautiful, especially in touristic areas. Being able to replace the catenaries in some portions by batteries is making you benefit from all the tramway’s advantages without any disadvantage. Thanks to this, tramways are coming back to city centers as we are more and more able to store power that can move tramways over a few kilometers.

As far as ‘urban trains’ or tramways, what are the technical specificities in terms of power storage?

The main constraint is space; usually the power is stored on the roof. Also of concern is the weight. So, we need to adapt by finding some powerful technologies that can provide 600 kW or more and be charged and recharged several times a day. It requires some powerful battery technologies with good cycling performances. We need to have a lot of power within a small place. High power now exists on the market.

Do you think one day we will finally notice the disappearance of these ‘ugly catenaries’ in city centers?

One day yes, but it will take a while! Today, you can have long buses that can go all day just on their own batteries. No need for catenary. There is a constant progress and improvements for battery technologies: what is doable today for a 12-meter-bus will be doable on a 24-meter bus, and will one day be feasible on a tramway.

We are not there yet, as it would require huge batteries. What we are already capable of doing is making batteries that would be able to recharge a little bit at every stop and at the last stop for 5 minutes for example. With this technology, you can run a 24-meter bus or a tramway by adding some fast charging stations along the route.

The same scenario can happen to tramways. We can replace the catenaries and have fast charging devices. The transition has started to happen on the buses and it will soon happen on the tramways.