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Reaching net zero carbon and implications for asset renewal in rail

In a national bid to reach net zero carbon and meet the prescribed targets of the 2016 Paris Agreement, rail has an important role to play.

It’s efficient throughput and high passenger density may give it brownie points from an environmental perspective. However, with the vast majority of freight rail assets in Australia and New Zealand still relying on fossil fuels, there is a way to go before net zero carbon is achieved.

These environmental pressures – combined with congestion issues in major cities – are driving a renaissance in rail investment globally, with an explosion of rail and related infrastructure projects arising in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and New Zealand. But where to best channel investment going forward?

Adam Williams of KiwiRail says asset renewal in this context requires careful, long-sighted consideration.

“Rail has proven technology for zero-emissions at the point-of-use (i.e. electrified networks), however there are large sections of, particularly, the freight network where electrification will not be a viable option. To service these areas, propulsion technology needs to develop that achieves a low or zero-carbon emissions profile,” he says ahead of AusRail PLUS 2019.

“Technology is developing quickly for light-rail and commuter heavy-rail applications, including battery, hybrid electric-battery or diesel-battery, and even hydrogen fuel cells, however the power characteristics required for long-haul freight haulage are very different and present more complex challenges.

“On top of that, rail assets tend to have a long useful life, with most purchases made through a lens of around 30 years asset life; and, in reality, typically lasting much longer. It is therefore critical to understand the overlay of asset purchases with the likely development pathways of the appropriate propulsion technology.

“Having said this, there are always options to upgrade or replace existing assets earlier than planned if technology develops to the point of proven viability.”

Adam believes these decisions would need to be supported by appropriate regulatory incentives to drive the behaviour.

“Reliance on corporate social responsibility drivers will not be enough,” he says. “Governments and regulatory bodies have a role to play in enabling and incentivising adoption of zero-carbon technology, through improved legislation that accounts for the true cost of carbon emissions, along with development of regulatory frameworks that enable uptake of the technology and alternative fuels such as hydrogen across the transport sector.”

KiwiRail is getting realistic about its cleantech adoption timeframes and is about to procure a new diesel-powered locomotive fleet for the South Island, as a first step towards reducing carbon emissions.

“Diesel is obviously not the end solution, but it’s our only realistic option at the moment and the new locomotives will be vastly cleaner in terms of emissions than the fleet they are replacing,” says Adam.

“We don’t have the overhead infrastructure in the South Island for electrified or bi-mode trains at present, so the only way we could move into the zero-emissions space is through battery storage technology. That’s something we will be looking at as our next step, before venturing into potential further electrification in the North Island and adoption of other carbon neutral solutions.

“In an ideal world, we would rush to our suppliers and say “please can we purchase fifty new hydrogen fuel cell-powered locomotives”. But in reality, asset renewal is an incremental process that must reflect the viability of these technologies and our own balance sheets.

“Businesses need to keep running – so it’s important we even the scales in terms of asset affordability and reliability also.”

An additional challenge is the uncertainty about how rail technologies may develop towards the thirty-year horizon.

“There is a reasonable amount of guesswork involved here,” says Adam. “The theoretical aspects of both hydrogen and battery-hybrid locomotives are well understood, but nobody in the supply chain has produced a synthesised, commercially viable freight locomotive product to date. We are hopeful of an acceleration in the development and deployment of zero-carbon propulsion technology, particularly in high-impact markets such as Europe and North America.”

As countries and industries start to walk down the path of viable strategies to achieve carbon reduction goals, interesting debates are also developing around how to form a “true measure” of a country’s carbon emissions, Adam highlights.

“There is a growing awareness of the impact of both upstream and downstream emissions profiles associated with assets and products, for example the carbon footprint in the manufacture and disposal of batteries, or the impact of downstream processing of iron ore into steel,” he says.

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