Last week I was writing about Infrastructure Integrated Photovoltaics, and I mentioned that solar trains were feasible but not yet in existence. A reader set me straight – the first solar train actually launched at the end of last year.
The honour goes to the Byron Bay Train, a restored 1940s two-car set that serves visitors to Australia’s famous beach resort. It runs hourly services on a 3km stretch, and it is powered entirely by solar panels on the roof of the train and on the engine shed.
Interestingly, this is a heritage railway restoration project as well as a pioneering technology. The train has been restored after sitting abandoned since it was withdrawn from service in 1995. The line itself has also been reopened, after services stopped running in 2004.
Railway historians may wince at the prospect, but this particular 1940s train is actually a perfect candidate for conversion to solar. After the Second World War, a factory in Sydney that had been making bombers switched to making trains instead. Being an aviation workshop, they worked with the materials they knew best and built them out of aluminium on a steel chassis. That was unusual at the time, and made for railway carriages that are “lighter than light rail” as the Byron Bay Train website puts it. Seventy years on, that lighter weight makes all the difference.
Still, we’re talking about a train that goes 3km at a leisurely pace once an hour. It shows the limits of solar trains as much as the possibilities – with this technology at least. The Byron Bay Train has onboard batteries, and it can be topped up from the grid if there’s a prolonged period of cloudy skies. This isn’t the same as the direct traction solar trains proposed by 10:10 – that’s a more radical suggestion where solar PV is wired straight into the third rail. With direct traction you would be able to run normal distances, and trains wouldn’t even need to be converted. So Byron Bay gets the world first badge, but the really revolutionary solar trains are still a little way down the track.