Rays and rails – a match made in heaven?

It seems simple: if you can power up a house or a car with solar energy, why not a train? But until a not-for-profit company in Byron Bay joined forces with the Lithgow Railway Workshop, it hadn’t been done.

For the past five years, the Byron Solar Train has travelled a 6km return journey 10 times each day, powered solely by the sun. Lithgow Railway Workshop managing director Tim Elderton believes the train is still the only solar-powered passenger train in the world. And it is attracting attention.

“We had interest initially from India, but COVID put a stop to all that,” Elderton says. “Argentina also expressed interest about two-and-a-half years ago. I was just about to hop on a plane and do some design work, but COVID stopped that too.”

The “late player” on the scene is Japan. Elderton will soon head there to work on a train design.

For the past five years, the Byron Solar Train has travelled a 6km return journey 10 times each day, powered solely by the sun.

It’s not a track the train enthusiast ever saw himself heading down. The Lithgow Railway Workshop usually provides train maintenance, repairs and support, with an expertise in restoring old trains.

The not-for-profit Byron Bay Railroad Company approached the workshop to restore a 1949 heritage rail car and a 1962 rail car to operating condition in 2013.

The company leased the rail car set from Lithgow State Mine Railway, who financially contributed to its restoration, with thousands of voluntary hours by Lithgow Railway Workshop going into the restoration.

Read also: How Narara Ecovillage is being used as a national model for renewable energy

The Byron Bay Railroad Company also restored the state-owned railway track and bridge at Byron Bay. But not all Byron Bay residents were on board with a diesel train running through their scenic slice of the New South Wales coast.

“The Byron Bay Railroad Company asked if the train could be converted to work on solar power,” Elderton says. Despite his initial surprise at the request, and after some investigation, Elderton told them it could be done. And, less than 12 months later, it was.

Solar-powered train
Lithgow Railway Workshop managing director Tim Elderton will travel to Japan to share design ideas for a solar-powered train. Credit: Lithgow Railway Workshop

“It worked straight up,” Elderton says. “Though I was a bit anxious when I opened the throttle for the first time.”

Lithgow State Mine Railway removed one of the train’s two diesel engines and replaced it with a pair of electric traction motors and traction inverters and equipment, along with a lithium-ion battery bank. Curved solar panels on the roof of both carriages collect and generate up to 6.5kW of solar power to charge the train’s batteries.

The train storage shed roof also has a large array of solar panels that can produce up to 30kW, connected to the train’s batteries via cables.

The lithium-ion batteries power all of the train’s equipment, including traction power, lighting, air compressors and control circuits. LED lights keep energy consumption down and regenerative braking means that when the train slows, the batteries recharge.

The train is not only fully solar-fuelled but operates on just 23% of the energy generated. The remaining 77% of energy goes into the grid to power the local community.

The remaining diesel engine, a clean-burning Cummins 14 litre NT855 diesel, provides weight and balance, as well as emergency back-up in the case of an electrical fault.

“It worked straight up,…though I was a bit anxious when I opened the throttle for the first time.”

Tim Elderton, Lithgow Railway Workshop

The Byron Solar Train won a number of awards back in 2018, including the Engineering Excellence Award at the Engineers Association Australia National Awards, the Rail Sustainability Award from the Australasian Rail Association, and two Good Design Awards.

Elderton says the technology is “not rocket science”, nor is it new.

“I have just engineered it to use on a train,” he says. “Finally, the government is saying we need to be carbon neutral, and now the NSW government is looking at decentralisation of rail systems – well, here’s an answer.

Solar powered train
Solar panels on the train storage shed roof, along with specially designed curved panels for the train roof, generate power for the train, with 77% of the output going back into the grid. Credit: Lithgow Railway Workshop

“There’s no need to manufacture new trains. In a couple of years, the XPTs will be replaced. The Endeavour and the Xplorer diesel rail cars are still structurally sound. It’s possible to remove the diesel engines and replace them with an electric traction drive system with solar recharging.

“We can do all that here at Lithgow to assist regional jobs.”

Elderton says the technology has the ability to do far more than what is happening in Byron Bay – solar-powered passenger trains could go beyond 200km in distance, recharging at stations along the way, and travel in excess of 100km/h, making them viable for regular passenger services.

Elderton has put in a submission to the NSW Government’s Draft Central West and Orana Transport Plan suggesting a solar-powered train system would be more effective and far less expensive for the area.

Australian interest in solar-powered trains has, he says, remained low, while other countries were beginning to see the potential in pairing historic trains with solar technology.

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