Former District line tube trains* will start running in West London this Spring as GWR brings a converted ex-tube train to West Ealing for testing.
GWR announced plans two years ago to replace its diesel trains running the line between West Ealing and Greenford and signed a contract with Vivarail to trial new battery-charging technology on short branch line railways.
Vivarail had bought a fleet of old District line trains and was developing ways of converting them for mainline use on branch lines, powered by batteries instead of overhead wires. However, Vivarail entered administration in December 2022, but the project was saved when GWR agreed to buy the intellectual property, rolling stock and equipment relating to the FastCharge battery technology.
The FastCharge technology aims to solve the problem of delivering reliable, battery-only trains on branch lines, eliminating the use of diesel traction.
One of the main problems with battery powered trains was the time taken to recharge the batteries at the end of each trip along the branch line. To solve that, the FastCharge system can deliver charging power of up to 2,000kW – that’s eight times more powerful than Tesla’s Supercharger. At West Ealing, where the technology will be trialled for the first time this spring, the train will take just 3 ½ minutes to charge the batteries before restarting its journey on the Greenford branch line.
The use of batteries for extended operation has typically been constrained by their range and meant widespread implementation has, until now, not been possible. It also negates the need for overhead electric lines which are expensive and impact the landscape.
Unlike other charging technologies, the FastCharge system can be installed between the running rails in a few hours, with minimal disruption to the existing service or, in the case of West Ealing, no disruption at all.
It uses short charge rails that are fully covered by the train and live only when the train is charging. This is very different to third-rail systems where the rail is live all the time and is arguably a safer approach to take.
The train charges from the charge rails using retractable shoegear (electrical contact pads) fed by two track-side battery banks. These are continuously ‘trickle-charged’ from the grid with a 63 Amp connection akin to a domestic supply.
After more than 1,500 hours of testing at the Long Marston Rail Innovation Centre in Warwickshire, GWR’s Class 230 battery train began a series of test runs on the network earlier this week. The test runs will operate between Long Marston, Evesham, Honeybourne and Moreton-in-Marsh. Once completed, the train will be sent to GWR’s Reading Train Care Depot ahead of moving to West Ealing. Once the trial commences in west London, the battery train will run in non-passenger service alongside scheduled passenger services.
So, it’s something to keep an eye out for.
GWR Engineering Director Dr Simon Green said: “This work has never been done before and we’re leading the way to help the Department for Transport and Network Rail understand what is required to roll out this technology on the UK’s rail network.
“Only now has there been a combination of battery capability and charging technology that enables a branch line train to operate to the same timetable as a diesel unit, and yet still charge safely and with minimal impact on the local grid power supply.
“Clearly our specialist engineering team have been working round-the-clock to ensure that this FastCharge system has been fully tested and that there will be sufficient charge for the train to operate to the timetable on the Greenford branch line.”
GWR has already carried out simulations on other branch lines in the Thames Valley to explore how it could be rolled out even further in the future. It is hoped the technology could one day see battery-powered trains in operation across the UK’s approximately 2,000 miles of 80-plus branch lines.
*Yes, they’re not technically tube trains but sub-surface London Underground trains, but most people call them tube trains.