SCBA sustainability rail traffic

From 2019 to 2020
Transport by rail leads to much lower emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants than comparable transport by road, inland shipping or air. This benefit is even more pronounced if the railway lines are electrified. In Belgium (and within Europe), rail transport is the only mode of transport that is almost entirely electrified. The further development of rail transport in Belgium is an essential part of the Energy-Climate Plan 2021-2030. In this study we carried out a cost-benefit analysis towards making rail transport more sustainable by further reducing the non-electrified parts of the rail network. These consist of passenger lines that are mainly located around Ghent (Eeklo-Ronse, Gent-Geraardsbergen, Aalst-Burst) and Charleroi-Couvin. In addition, there are the non-electrified goods lines Genk-Bilzen (L21c), Gent-Zelzate (L204) and Gent-Wondelgem-Terneuzen (L55).

Three options are considered for the remaining non-electrified lines:
1) full electrification of the Belgian rail network, thereby only making use of electric trains
(2) use of hydrogen trains to replace diesel trains on non-electrified parts
(3) the use of battery-powered and pantograph hybrid trains (only for passenger trains)

To this end, TML performed the following tasks:
  1. Task 1: Literature research and collection of key figures and indicators
  2. Task 2: Development of an evaluation tool
  3. Task 3: Application of the evaluation tool and sensitivity analysis

As a result from the literature review we find that alternatives to electric passenger trains are offering opportunities to save costs and further improve the sustainability of the rail network. This is true for both battery as for hydrogen. From these two, the battery train is closest to full commercial implementation. Battery trains still depend on adequate charging infrastructure and partial electrification to operate reliably. Hydrogen, as a virtually infrastructure-free technology offers an important advantage and may profit from interaction with the industrial sector. The possible price and availability of (green hydrogen) remains the critical question here. In the case of freight transport by rail, the alternatives to full electrification do not seem to be fully developed yet. For the time being, batteries do not have the energy density to provide sufficient energy to reliably move heavy freight trains over long distances. The only possibility are hybrid trains, either combining battery and diesel or hydrogen and diesel technologies.

The evaluation tool was developed in Excel starting from a comprehensive quick scan tool for low-utilized railways first developed in 2015. The tool consists of a set of linked spreadsheets, which can rate specific lines to 1) accessibility, 2) energy costs, 3) investment and maintenance costs, 4) emissions and environmental impact. The tool has a built-in method for sensitivity analysis on the basis of the DG Regio (2014) Guide to Cost Benefit Analysis. This can be applied in different set-ups: best/worst case analysis, an analysis by parameter and a Monte Carlo analysis. This allows for a very extensive sensitivity and scenario analysis.

We find that full electrification of the remaining diesel lines potentially has large social benefits. We therefore recommend a departure from diesel trains in the long term, even if new diesel trains meet higher standards than the currently used AR/MW 41. The feasibility and possible benefit of electrification vary by line, so more heavily used passenger lines should be prioritized. The most promising alternative technology is the use of battery trains, however the difference in benefits and cost to full electrification is relatively limited and very dependent on the particular characteristics of the line. The roll-out of hydrogen trains is found to be relatively risky and should only be performed when there is an adequate industrial infrastructure for supplying (cheap and renewable) hydrogen nearby.


From 2019 to 2020


FPS Mobility and Transport

Our team

Griet De Ceuster, Sebastiaan Boschmans, Eef Delhaye, Christophe Heyndrickx
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