What is the Future of Battery Trains in New Zealand?

Electric battery trams or trains have a surprisingly long history in New Zealand and could be successfully used again

A view down Gladstone Road Gisborne, shows a battery driven tram, shortly before the system closed. Taken by Sydney Charles Smith, ca 1929.

A close examination of New Zealand’s public transport history indicates battery powered trains could have a good future in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s first battery powered public transport vehicles were used in Gisborne. Several trams which ran on battery power rather than a reticulated supply of electricity were purchased following the town’s Mayor personally meeting Thomas Edison. The trams were in service from 1913 to 1929. Unfortunately this experiment with battery powered public transport was unsuccessful due to financial constraints. The capital outlay of the imported trams was too expensive for a small town such as Gisborne to sustain. H/T @honpeterdunne

New Zealand’s second electric battery operated public transport service was a railcar that ran from Christchurch to Little River between 1926 and 1934. At the time the service was popular and financially viable. A depot fire ended this experiment in public transport. The Great Depression meant the railcar wasn’t replaced.

NZR RM class (Edison battery-electric)

Christchurch’s electric battery railcar weighed 32 tonnes with driving controls at each end. The engine output of 90 kW meant it travelled comfortably at 60 km/h. Capable of carrying about 70 passengers, the railcar had a range of about 160 km on one battery (charge). The trams used imported Edison nickel-iron batteries.

Approximate route of Christchurch to Little River railway. A cycleway now uses some of the old track bed.

The battery railcar covered the 58 km, 12 stop journey between Christchurch and Little River in 1 hour and 7 minutes at an average speed of 48 km/h. The railcar was popular with passengers and drivers due to its quietness and smooth acceleration. The elevated track and height of the railcar meant passengers enjoyed a good view over the flat Canterbury plains.

Side-on Canterbury’s battery railcars looked like a passenger carriage, but each end resembled the front of a tram from that era. The body was built by Boon & Stevens, the noted tram-car builders of Christchurch.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s Christchurch had an extensive tram network, so it isn’t surprising that local businesses built a railcar that had tram features.

Canterbury was ideal for experimentation with electric battery powered trains because of its flat terrain. In my opinion not continuing this experiment was a missed opportunity for New Zealand.

Elsewhere in the world experimentation continued. Between 1955 and 1995 Deutsche Bahn Railways successfully operated more powerful (over 300 kW) trains using lead-acid batteries. The German electric battery trains had a top speed of 100km/h and were very popular with passengers and drivers. Trains had nicknames, such as, Battery Lightning, Battery Acid Bombers, Socket InterCitys and Pocket Torch Express.

Currently New Zealand is experimenting with electric battery powered buses using powerful lithium ion battery technology.

In 2017 NZ Bus began a three month trial of Chinese BYD electric buses in Auckland and Wellington.

BYD K9A bus running in Guangzhou

BYD K9 buses are powered by LiFePO4 batteries. The maximum power output is 90 kW. The bus weighs about 18 tonne, has a top speed of 96 km/h and a range of about 250 km.

Wellington has very recently introduced electric double decker buses run by bus company Tranzit. The buses were built by Kiwi Bus Builders in Tauranga, with the batteries provided by global company Microvast and the chassis coming from China-based company TEG.

Christchurch will roll out three electric buses for the airport to city route from March 2019. The Christchurch electric buses will only need to be charged once per day.

The Low-Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund has been supporting the increase in electric vehicles in New Zealand. This fund has helped various bus companies, such as, Tranzit undertake research on applying electric battery technology to their bus fleets.

The fund provides up to $7 million per year to co-fund up to 50% of project costs with private and public sector partners in areas where commercial returns aren’t yet strong enough to justify full private investment.

Canterbury’s planned transition to emission-free vehicles for its public transport fleet as outlined in the draft Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan. Reported in a Stuff.co.nz article titled — Sweeping changes to Christchurch bus services a step closer

This funding is encouraging a fast uptake of electric battery technology for the public transport industry.

Unfortunately given current funding arrangements, Canterbury or other interested areas will not see a renewal of battery railcar experimentation with assistance from the Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund, as rail vehicles are currently outside the fund’s scope. The fund being limited to supporting road electric vehicles and is especially focused on heavy commercial vehicles.

Ninety years ago, New Zealand used off-the-shelf technology to build a successful electric battery railcar. Now that battery technology has improved I wonder if New Zealand should continue the experiment?

Could electric battery railcars use the same off-the-shelf technology as EV buses?

Soon there will be thousands of high powered electric battery and motor units designed for buses and trucks. There will also be many fast electric battery charging units designed for high demand services, such as, bus fleets and commercial freight operators.

Could electric battery railcars piggyback on these technological advances?

Will electric battery technology be the lowest capital cost option for restarting commuter rail services in less populated places like Canterbury?

Electrifying tracks is very expensive. It would cost over $200 million to electrify all of Greater Christchurch’s suburban and satellite town train tracks for instance.

Would electric battery technology be the best way to start a combined passenger rail and EV bus rapid transit service for Greater Christchurch?

If a whole rapid transit system in a metropolitan area used the same battery technology would that be the lowest economies of scale option?

I am no engineer or train nerd (or EV nerd). I suspect though, that like electric buses some experimentation is required to answer these kinds of questions.

Other countries have recently started experimenting with electric battery trains.

The flexible SunMan solar panels lining the carriage roofs produce energy that is stored a 77 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery system, which can also charge up between trips via a 30 kW solar array at the main station. The battery bank has around the same capacity as a Tesla Model S, according to RenewEconomy, and can make 12 to 15 runs off one charge as it only takes the solar train around four kWh for each leg of the trip

Byron Bay has a solar powered battery electric train run by a non-profit organisation. Initially they planned to simply refurbish a 1949 600 Class Rail Motor Train using the original diesel engines. Advances in technology meant electric batteries and solar power was the better option.

1949–600 Class Rail Motor Train

The solar powered train in Byron Bay only travels a short distance of 3km and is not fast. The train is underpowered at 77kW compared to 90kW for Canterbury’s historic railcar and over 300kW for Germany’s successful battery powered trains. The original diesel engine 600 Class trains had a top speed of 100km/hr and a power output of 246 kW.

The whole Byron Bay train system cost just a few million dollars which also included renovating the track and building two train stations. The unsubsidised scheme appears financially viable with a decent amount of passenger use. Extending the track and boosting train power is possible, especially if government funding and cooperation can be accessed.

Japan has introduced a number of electric battery trains since it first tested the concept in 2009. The country has found that battery-powered trains are a cost-effective, eco-friendly alternative to diesel trains for many rural lines that do not have electrified tracks.

Test Electrostar Train converted to run on batteries and overhead wires

In Britain, in 2015, a month long trial of a Electrostar train using electric lithium batteries was conducted. The train was able to travel up to 97 km on energy stored in the batteries. It recharged the batteries via overhead-wires when on electrified sections of the line, at stations and via brake regeneration.

On the back of this successful trial and with the improvement in battery technology Mark Carne the Chief Executive of Network Rail in 2017 stated:

“The idea that you need to electrify an entire route is no longer necessarily the case… technology is advancing at such a pace that better reliability could be achieved without the construction of unsightly overhead cables.”

Mark Carne added that development in batteries is such that it might soon be cost effective to swap diesel engines for battery or hybrid devices, therefore saving the vast cost of installing power lines above every section of track.

Auckland Transport recently considered buying electric battery trains as they didn’t want to continue to run diesel trains to Pukekohe south of Auckland. The estimated cost to extend electrification the 36 km to Pukekohe was more than $100 million. In the end the Government and Auckland Transport decided that full track electrification rather than adding some battery electric trains to Auckland’s train fleet was the best option for a city the size of Auckland.

For the less populated parts of New Zealand perhaps the time has come to restart experimentation on battery powered railcars -it could be brilliant!