Over two years ago British researchers began work on plans to discover whether using solar power and bypassing the electric grid could make a more efficient energy source for trains. The team behind the project called Riding Sunbeams estimated renewable energy could power 20 percent of the Merseyrail network that serves Liverpool and the surrounding Liverpool City Region, as well as 15% of commuter routes in Kent, Sussex and Wessex.

Last Friday the world’s first solar farm to power a railway line was plugged directly into the track about 32 mi southwest of London near the town of Aldershot, paving the way for solar-powered trains.

Around 100 panels are now keeping the signaling and lights up and running on Network Rail’s Wessex route.

The 30kW pilot scheme could very well be the impetus for a larger project capable of directly powering the trains that use this route next year.

Solar panels are already used to power operation at certain train stations. But this project is the first time a solar array will bypasses the grid, plugging solar power directly into a railway’s “traction” system.

Network Rail, the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the railway network in Great Britain plans to spend billions of pounds electrifying rail lines to avoid running trains on diesel. It’s the goal of the UK government to eliminate the use of diesel on the rail network by 2040. If the pilot project is successful it is their aim to do so using solar on its rail lines across the country. This could help reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and costs. It is a scheme developed by Imperial College London and the charity 10:10 Climate Action with the catchphrase, “Riding Sunbeams.”

Stuart Kistruck, a director for Network Rail’s Wessex route, said: “We have ambitions to roll this technology out further across the network should this demonstrator project prove successful, so we can deliver a greener, better railway for our passengers and the wider public.”

According to the team, there is also scope for solar trams in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Nottingham, London and Manchester in the future.

Innovate UK awarded the project funding from the Department of Transport after it proved that connecting solar power directly to rail, tube and tram networks could help meet a significant share of their electricity needs. Innovate UK is the operating name of the Technology Strategy Board, the United Kingdom’s innovation agency.

Owing to concern about costs, plans to electrify Britain’s rail lines have faltered in recent years. But as solar technology improves, the cost of solar has plummeted. Solar farms can be subsidy–free supplying electricity at a lower cost than the electricity supplied via the grid.

There are payback benefits to local community funds so future projects across the UK could be community-owned. By the end of next year, according to the director of Riding Sunbeams, Leo Murray there is a hope to build and connect the world’s first-ever full-scale community- and commuter-owned solar farm to UK railways.

Murray said they will be able to cut running costs, benefit local communities, and play a part in tackling the climate crisis. “Matchmaking the UK’s biggest electricity user, the railways, with the nation’s favorite energy source, solar power, looks like the start of the perfect relationship.”

The UK isn’t the first country to have solar-powered trains. Since 2017 India has put 250 cars in service with panels fixed on their roofs. The subcontinent plans to establish trackside solar farms with Indian Railways’ aim to save billions on electricity expenses by switching to solar energy over the next 10 years. With the largest rail network in Asia, running around 11,000 trains daily, Indian Railways moves roughly 13 million passengers every day.

Part of the plan is to replace their polluting coal-fired power with cleaner energy sources. This includes as much as 100GW of solar power.

The United Kingdom is certainly on track with solar power and helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.


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