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Could Biofuel Keep Steam Trains On Track?


In an age when rail electrification is replacing diesel just as electric vehicles are a growing presence on our roads, the existence of trains that belch out fossil fuel emissions seems an environmentally-ruinous anomaly.

While mainline rail might be modernising, a query may be made of one kind of rail travel that by definition defies modernity; heritage steam trains.

These may be more a part of the leisure industry than a means of commuting, but they arepopular, numerous and contribute heavily to the UK tourist economy.

Across Britain there are more than 150 steam heritage lines, to be found everywhere from the top of Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa to the northern outskirts of Greater Manchester, from the Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Wight. And as they emit steam, they fill the air with carbon from all the coal they burn.

However, the steam emitted from a pressure relief valve does not have to be full of carbon; there may be a way this polluting activity can be curbed while keeping these vintage trains on the tracks. Tests have been taking place in Japan for the use ofbiofuel in steam trains as an alternative to coal.

It may seem incongruous that the land of the Bullet Train still has coal-powered steam locomotives, but it does. Tobu Railway is seeking to use a biofuel mix made of buckwheat chaff, wood chips, coffee granules and other materials to reduce its coal use by 40 per cent.

With the company using 160 tonnes of coal per year, it hopes to reduce its emissions by 150 tonnes a year. In a related development, the company is also experimenting with a biofuel made from waste cooking oil as a potential alternative to diesel.

At this stage, these new biofuel alternatives won’t completely eliminate diesel and coal, but if they prove successful in maintaining engine performance while cutting emissions, they may provide a greener model that heritage railways can follow.