The world’s first solar-powered railway line is being rolled out in a ground-breaking scheme that paves the way for solar trains.
From Friday, about 100 solar panels will be plugged directly into the track near Aldershot, providing renewable electricity to power signalling and lights on Network Rail’s Wessex route.
The pilot scheme could pave the way for an even more ambitious project to power trains from solar energy on the route from next year.
It comes as Network Rail plans to spend billions of pounds electrifying lines to avoid trains running on diesel to reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and costs.
Solar power is already used to operate train stations, including Blackfriars in central London.
But the Aldershot project is the first time solar power will bypass the electricity grid to plug directly into a railway’s traction system.
Director for Network Rail’s Wessex route, Stuart Kistruck, said: “We have ambitions to roll this technology out further across the network should this demonstrator project prove successful, so we can deliver a greener, better railway for our passengers and the wider public.”
Riding Sunbeams, the research team behind the project, estimate solar energy could power 20% of the Merseyrail network in Liverpool and 15% of commuter routes in Kent, Sussex and Wessex.
Researchers began work on the plans two years ago to investigate whether bypassing the electricity grid could make solar power a more energy-efficient source for trains.
The project received funding from Innovate UK, from the Department of Transport. Director of Riding Sunbeams, Leo Murray, says future projects across Britain could be community-owned.
Riding Sunbeams hopes to build and connect the world’s first-ever full-scale community and commuter-owned solar farm to UK railways.
Mr Murray claims railways will be able to cut their running costs and benefit local communities while tackling climate change.
He said: “Matchmaking the UK’s biggest electricity user, the railways, with the nation’s favourite energy source, solar power, looks like the start of the perfect relationship.
“Helping to get the railways off fossil fuels in this way will cut running costs and benefit local communities at the same time as helping to tackle the climate crisis.”