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The changing face of transport: decarbonising road and rail

The issue of climate change and our obligations to respond to environmental concerns continue to dominate the public agenda.

Among the significant challenges posed, is the bid to decarbonise road and rail transport, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While achieving “clean” mobility could play a major role in achieving low – or zero – carbon mobility, it is fraught with a great many challenges.

Some recent developments however, offer a mixture of hope for the future and stark realism at how far we have to travel to achieve low carbon mobility in Ireland.

Solar power trains

Imperial College London and 10:10 have announced a project, ‘Renewable Traction Power’, to investigate using track-side solar panels to power trains.

Although this sounds quite straightforward it is not being done anywhere else in the world and the team are the first to attempt it.

Electric trains are, it is claimed, by far the best long distance transport mode when it comes to carbon emissions – at least when their electricity comes from renewable sources like solar or wind power.

The work could potentially have a huge impact for electrified rail networks all over the world, including Ireland.

The team’s plan is certainly innovative and unique, connecting solar panels directly to the lines which provide electricity to trains. This will bypass the electricity grid so that the panels can provide power precisely when needed most.

Initially the project will look at the feasibility of converting “third rail systems”; the method for supplying electricity to the locomotive through a power line running alongside or between the rails.

It would also open up thousands of new sites to small and medium scale renewable developments by removing the need to connect to the grid. Could this offer the potential to expand Ireland’s electrified rail network beyond DART and LUAS services in Dublin? Time will tell.

Electric buses

Like rail, electric vehicles are being eyed as a potential method for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Electric buses are becoming increasingly prevalent in cities around the world – from London to Vancouver, and Seattle to Seoul. Transport For London (TFL) announced this week that it is add further electric buses to its fleet, the largest in Europe.

Having introduced hybrid buses in 2006, the move will take the total number of electric buses on London’s streets to more than 120, in addition to 2,000 hybrid electric buses – 20 per cent of the entire fleet – already in operation.

TfL plans to stop purchasing diesel-only double decker buses completely by 2018 and wants more than 3,100 of them to be hybrids by the following year.

This news coincided with Ryan Popple’s – CEO with Proterra, electric bus manufacturer – claim that electric buses are now cheaper than diesel/CNG, and made a bold prediction that battery-powered buses will dominate the transit bus market within 10 years.

Last year, Dublin Bus proposed to trial three hybrids over three years but the National Transport Authority (NTA) vetoed the plans on the grounds of it would be too costly, compared with standard diesel double-deck buses.

Electric cars

Staying in Ireland meanwhile, the Government has been urged to support e-car growth. Under the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan, it had been envisioned that 50,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in just four years. This ambition is beginning to look more and more like a pipe dream.

James McCarthy, Head of Nissan Ireland has claimed this target will not be met without a “coherent strategy”, and that Ireland faced fines of up to €6bn from the European Commission for failing to promote renewable forms of transport.

McCarthy’s concern appears significant. With just three years to go until that 2020 target, Ireland has a just 2,000 electric vehicles on the roads. Last year, sales of new electric cars actually fell (from 466 in 2015 to 392 in 2016, compared to 142,000 new cars overall).

The Government is being urged to put in place measures to encourage e-car growth and meet EU targets by introducing incentives including free parking, free road tolls and access to bus lanes.


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