Trains, Trains, and Automobiles

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Introduction: Trains, Trains, and Automobiles

That title is no accident. Are trains the form of transportation for the future? Certainly, people have been making this prediction for decades now, and it has borne fruit in some situations. Places like Japan, the Netherlands, and, yes, Australia, have embraced the benefits of commuter rail, while other developed nations like the United States have traditionally lagged behind. As we move into a world increasingly affected by climate change, however, rail only becomes more appealing – especially as companies figure out ways to incorporate green technology such as solar energy. In this blog, we’ll explore the environmental impact of trains and how solar energy technology could make them even better.

Are Trains Environmentally Friendly?

In a word, yes. In fact, commuter trains are by the far the most efficient means of transportation we currently have. Over medium-length distances, taking a car instead of a train will cut emissions by nearly 80%. That’s a staggering number, especially since transportation as a whole accounts for 17% of all emissions in Australia. The more we can reduce that number, the better. And, one way that could be done is encouraging the use of trains over automobiles.

Train Ridership in Australia

However, as we look to the future, which includes the prospect of solar-powered trains, it will all be for naught if people don’t actually want to commute that way. Thankfully, that’s not a problem in Australia. Commuter rail is hugely important in Australia’s largest cities – Sydney, for example, has daily ridership numbers in the millions, with other cities not far behind. Overall, walking-only commuters and train commuters, at 24% and 21.9%, respectively, have overtaken car commuters (19.9%) as of 2016 in terms of type of commute taken. Trains are a key part of Australia’s average commute.

In fact, all around the world, many major metropolitan areas have embraced commuter trains as the superior method of getting around. It makes sense. If you need to move a lot of people around at one time, it’s hard to get more efficient than a train.

Solar Trains

Now, here we get to the good stuff. Solar-powered trains. While this might have seemed like a sci-fi impossibility a decade ago, today people have managed to make it work. Let’s take a look at what might become the future of trains.

Right here in Australia, the Byron Bay Railroad Company has made one of the most convincing solar-powered trains yet. The company looked at an abandoned, 70-year-old, stretch of track in Byron Bay and dreamed of creating a new twist on a familiar classic. Though the route had been decommissioned for 13 years due to low passenger levels, they figured that they could revive it with a solar-powered train.

This train features a 6.5-kilowatt solar panel system, artistically curved to match the classic slopes of the train’s rooftop. That system is accompanied by a 77-kilowatt-hour battery system, similar to what you would find on an older Tesla. Together, those systems allow the reincarnated train to carry up to one-hundred seated passengers, with room to spare for standing passengers, luggage, bikes, and, of course, surfboards. In case the train doesn’t have quite enough juice, it’s accompanied by a 30-kilowatt solar panel array, battery storage system, and charging station at the end of its route.

However, this isn’t the only example of a train route boosted by solar energy. In India, a potentially more practical plan has taken shape, with a diesel commuter train with solar panels on its roof that power lights, information displays, and fans. Though perhaps not as flashy as a train that is entirely powered by the sun, this is a much more feasible way to marry solar technology and commuter trains. And, the benefits are still immense. Those solar panels could save up to 21,000 liters of diesel fuel per year, which would save a lot of money – and, of course, the environment.

If that isn’t practical enough for you, there are also plans to power the electrical overhead lines that bring energy to trains with solar power. These solar panel systems would be set up as close to the railways as possible, so that the least amount of energy would be lost to transmission and distribution. A sort of “in-house” solar panel system could be the way of the future for trains.

Conclusion

While the world of solar-powered electric trains isn’t here yet, they could be a promising avenue for fighting climate change as time goes on. Trains are already an incredibly efficient means of transportation, and marrying them with solar technology would make them even better.

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