The future is here: solar-powered trains

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

For the past five years, the Byron Solar Train has made a 6km round trip 10 times a day, powered exclusively 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’s getting attention.

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

The “late player” on the scene is Japan. Elderton will soon be heading there to work on a train project.

For the past five years, the Byron Solar Train has made a 6km round trip 10 times a day, powered exclusively by the sun.

It’s not a track the train enthusiast has ever seen himself descending. Lithgow Railway Workshop generally provides train maintenance, repairs and support, with experience in restoring old trains.

The non-profit Byron Bay Railroad Company approached the workshop to restore a historic 1949 railcar and a 1962 railcar to operational condition in 2013.

The company leased the trainset from the Lithgow State Mine Railway, which contributed financially to its restoration, with thousands of volunteer hours from the Lithgow Railway Workshop going into the restoration.


Also read: How the Narara Ecovillage is being used as a national model for renewable energy


The Byron Bay Railroad Company also restored the state railroad and bridge at Byron Bay. But not all Byron Bay residents were aboard a diesel train that traversed its scenic slice of the New South Wales coast.

“The Byron Bay Railroad Company asked if the train could be converted to run on solar energy,” says Elderton. 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 through,” says Elderton. “Although I was a little anxious when I first opened the throttle.”

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

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

Lithium-ion batteries power all equipment on the train, including traction power, lighting, air compressors and control circuits. LED lights keep energy consumption low and regenerative braking means that when the train decelerates, the batteries recharge.

The train is not only fully solar powered, but operates on only 23% of the energy generated. The remaining 77% of the energy goes into the grid to feed the local community.

The remaining diesel engine, a clean-burning 14-liter Cummins NT855 diesel, provides weight and balance, as well as emergency backup in the event of an electrical failure.

“It worked straight through, although I was a little anxious when I first opened the throttle.”

Tim Elderton, Lithgow Railway Workshop

The Byron Solar Train won several awards 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 just designed it for use on a train,” he says. “Finally, the government is saying that we need to be carbon neutral, and now the NSW government is looking at decentralizing the rail systems – well, here’s an answer.

solar powered train
Solar panels on the roof of the train’s storage shed, along with specially designed curved panels for the train’s roof, generate power for the train, with 77% of the output returning to the grid. Credit: Lithgow Railway Workshop

“There is no need to manufacture new trains. In a few years, the XPTs will be replaced. The Endeavor and Xplorer diesel railcars are still structurally sound. It is possible to remove the diesel engines and replace them with an electric drive system with solar charging.

“We can do all of that here in Lithgow to support regional jobs.”

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

Elderton submitted a submission to the NSW government’s Orana Midwest Transport Plan Project, suggesting that a solar-powered train system would be more effective and much less expensive for the area.

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



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