Villneuve marshalling yard in 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia, CCBY3.0, Poudou99)

Over half of EU locomotives still run on diesel: the road to net zero

Villneuve marshalling yard in in France Wikimedia, CCBY3.0, Poudou99

While already the most sustainable mode of transport, it is still a challenge to move rail to net zero emissions, sees the European Association of Rail Rolling Stock Lessors (EARRL). It recently presented a roadmap on what alternatives to diesel for locomotives should be prioritised by the EU in order to further decarbonise rail between 2025 and 2050.

60 percent of European main lines is currently electrified. While further electrification of tracks is the most efficient, full electrification of the EU railways by 2050 is not realistic, sees the EARRL, which represents most EU rail rolling stock leasing companies. Out of around 11.000 locomotives currently operating in rail freight mainline services, 75 percent are electric locomotives. But there remain 2,850 diesel locomotives in rail freight that are still running on the main lines. Also, 10,500 locomotives for shunting and short-line operations are running on diesel. Adding passenger locomotives, another 950 out of 6,250 locomotives are powered by diesel. This means that looking at only EU countries, in total more than 50 percent of the locomotive fleet still run on diesel, the overwhelming in freight transport.

When it comes to freight, the EARRL claims that dual-mode battery/electric locomotives are the best and more realistic solution for the future than full electrification. The association sees Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO), a second-generation biofuel using food industry waste, as a short-term and transitioning solution. Hydrogen can also be considered an option for heavy freight and long distances, despite the association having doubts about current technologies.

These were the main outcomes of a webinar on alternatives to fossil diesel held on 4 May by EARRL’s Secretary General Carole Coune, and three CEOs: of rolling stock leasing companies present were Fabien Rochefort, CEO of Akiem and Chair of the association, Lukasz Boron, CEO of Cargounit. Third speaker was Pierre-Yves Cohen, CEO of eolos, the consulting company who carried out a study for EARRL on which the roadmap is based.

The initial roadmap of EARRL focusing on technological alternatives to accelerate decarbonisation (EARRL / eolos)

‘Battery/electric is the way to go’

The EARRL considers battery/electric locomotives a viable solution because projects of this kind are already included in the EU Taxonomy programme, and the technology is ready. According to the association’s plan, the implementation of electric/battery locomotives in Europe would start in 2035 in ports and shunting yards and expand to the main rail networks. The EARRL is asking the EU to consider higher investments for the 2025-2030 period in upgrading the rolling stock.

According to the EARRL, the money would come from “balanced investments in the electrification of the infrastructure and rolling stock upgrades” throughout that period. According to the association, this would create ‘virtuous loops’ which would benefit both the infrastructure and the rolling stock side. Investing in HVO and electric/battery locomotives would make infrastructure electrification projects cheaper, incentivising investments and boosting the modal shift.

However, there are two aspects that need to be addressed. First, batteries are not very suitable for rail freight because they can only run for a limited period, not enough to cover long-distance journeys. Moreover, balancing funds between infrastructure and rolling stock may have the opposite effect than hoped. Considering that the EARRL believes that full electrification cannot be achieved by 2050, diverting funds from it might delay this project even further.

‘HVO should be included in the EU taxonomy public policy’

As Rochefort explained, the EARRL considers HVO as a bridge solution that can be used from now until 2035, when the association hopes there will be a significant shift to battery/electric locomotives. According to Rochet, it could be implemented quickly since it would not require changing fuelling stations or tanks and can be mixed with diesel as well. Moreover, the EARRL says that HVO can be implemented on a large scale as early as 2025.

The EARRL’s argument for choosing HVO only as a short-term solution is that its supply cannot be secured for the long run, and it is not completely green. Coune mentioned at the end of the webinar that the availability of HVO at competitive prices for the rail industry cannot be guaranteed when compared to the road sector. Concerning emissions, HVO drastically reduces CO2 emissions, but it is not as effective when it comes to nitric oxide (NOx) and particulates emissions.

Regarding HVO supply, Rochefort mentioned that HVO should be increased through subsidies such as the Horizon Europe Programme. Moreover, HVO is pricey, about 30 cents per litre, according to the association, making it more expensive than diesel and, therefore, possibly less appealing. For this, the speakers all agreed that initiatives involving HVO should be included in the EU Taxonomy programme.

What about hydrogen?

Hydrogen can be a solution for rail freight because it is more suitable for long distances and heavy loads than batteries, as the EARRL underlined in the webinar. However, hydrogen is expensive and more dangerous to store and transport, especially in tunnels. In addition, the technologies to produce green hydrogen will not be available on a large scale in Europe before at least 2035, as the speakers said. They added that Europe ranks last when it comes to producing renewable hydrogen, which creates another hurdle for its implementation continent-wide.

The EARRL is not too optimistic about ammonia and Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) as valid alternatives to diesel in the rail industry. When it comes to ammonia, the main issues concern the required extensive retrofitting of rolling stock and proper handling and storage procedures. Moreover, compared to diesel, ammonia is much less efficient since three times the amount is required to cover the same distance. When it comes to RNG, other than retrofitting the rolling stock, it would be necessary to build new refuelling stations.

A version of this article first appeared on sister publication

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Author: Esther Geerts

Former Editor

1 comment op “Over half of EU locomotives still run on diesel: the road to net zero”

bönström bönström|09.05.23|16:43

Still, by far the safest and most energy effective, on shore mode, as well has to prove, the client friendly!
When electrification proves robust (redundant and resilient) then it is the technicality!
Hybrid, diesel etc., any, but a robust electrification is basics, at a vital function of society!
(Now, no supply chain affords luxury of not caring about eta!)

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