Railways (Hydrogen-powered Trains)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 18th February 2021.

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Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

1. To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to the future use of hydrogen-powered trains on the Edinburgh-Dundee-Aberdeen main line. (S5O-05017)

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Our “Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan” envisages an electrified railway between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. However, the optimum programme to achieve that remains under analysis, and a range of traction options—electric, battery and hydrogen fuel cell—are under consideration to expedite replacement of our diesel trains.

Through our hydrogen accelerator initiative at the University of St Andrews, we are building capability. The initiative’s zero-emissions train project at Bo’ness, which is managed by world-leading hydrogen technology company Arcola Energy, seeks to address the issues that are associated with creating then enabling a hydrogen fuel cell train to operate on the network later this year.

Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

The first hydrogen trains are due to be displayed at COP26—the 26th conference of the parties—later this year, to demonstrate the future of sustainable rail travel. My concern is that the main line to Aberdeen is due to be electrified by 2035. In addition, electrification gantries are visually unattractive and expensive and, in any event, half the energy is lost in transmission. It is possible that hydrogen trains could be introduced on the line, which would reduce the costs of electrification and could happen much sooner. We could face a situation in which electrification is finished, only for the line to face more long-term disruption in order to introduce hydrogen technology. Can the cabinet secretary set out whether the improvements can be undertaken concurrently, or should my constituents think of hydrogen trains as something that they might see in 25 years or more?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I thought that, by now, I did not need to say that supplementary questions should be short, as should answers, if possible. Mr Mason—you are a naughty person.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

We are looking at a range of traction options. The only note of caution that I sound about the use of hydrogen fuel cell trains is that their ability to operate on long-distance networks at high speed is significantly less, and the technology is still developing. Scotland is one of the leading countries in progressing use of hydrogen in rail services, which is why we have the project at Bo’ness.

However, the member can be assured that hydrogen is one of the areas that we are looking at. If it is viewed as being the most appropriate traction type for improving services to Aberdeen, that will be the approach that will be taken. However, that analysis is still being carried out, and electrification and battery electric trains are also being considered.