Vivarail – Towards a Net Zero Track Record
Vivarail, a British rolling stock manufacturer, aims to be a world-class innovator and provider of zero-emission mobility solutions for the benefit of future generations.
Vivarail was founded in 2012 with a view to converting retired London Underground D78 Stock into two new classes for National Rail services.
“The original inspiration was to provide the industry with more cost-effective rolling stock options. Our proposition has been to offer new trains that would be cheaper to make and cheaper to maintain, reflecting market developments towards sustainability,” says Steve McBride, Managing Director of Vivarail.
He explains that although the original idea was to find cost-effective solutions for diesel trains, the focus has now moved to battery technology. Vivarail has spent six years investigating, trialling, developing, and testing battery technology for rail and has proved the concept with its Class 230 platform.
The use of modular systems means that existing mid-life diesel trains can be converted to battery operation quickly and easily. This approach ensures that high-quality rolling stock does not get scrapped early and helps the environment, reducing waste and emissions.
The same technology can also be installed on electric trains giving them extended range beyond the electrified network.
The company has also developed and patented Fast Charge, an industry gamechanger, which can automatically recharge a battery train in only 10 minutes and provide a range of 100km. The system is set to become the UK’s standard system for all types of battery trains – and at a fraction of the cost of traditional electrification.
“One of the questions that everybody asks about battery trains is how long do they run before running out of charge. With automatic fast charging facilities, as long as these are strategically located, the range of a battery train is infinite,” says Steve McBride.
The fact that the company uses ex-London Underground aluminium body shells, meaning around 50% less embedded carbon compared to manufacturing trains from new, is another significant added benefit.
The Human Factor
Today, Vivarail employs over 100 people working in production facilities in Southam, Warwickshire and Seaham, County Durham. There are also small teams based out at maintenance depots in Bletchley Birkenhead and on the Isle of Wight.
Mr McBride, who himself has a broad range of knowledge and experience, having worked in the railway industry for 47 years, emphasises that one of the reasons behind the company’s fast growth has been the high-quality, committed, and loyal workforce.
“We have been fortunate to have a really good team of people with expertise from across the whole railway spectrum but also with specialist knowledge from other industries, such as automotive and aerospace, which have also developed battery technology.
“I think the other thing that makes us a little bit different is that we are not part of a large corporate structure; we have a very flat efficient organisation which enables us to be very responsive and very agile.”
Yet another aspect that has helped the company to prosper has been Vivarail’s supply network, mostly located in the vicinity of Vivarail’s headquarters in the Midlands. “I’m proud of the relationships we have built with our supply partners, without whom we could not have achieved what we have,” admits Mr McBride.
He further explains that Vivarail has largely been active in the UK but has recently also designed, built, and delivered battery trains to the US, to promote a concept called Pop-up Metro. The idea, which came from Vivarail’s US colleagues, focuses on providing a reliable, low-cost sustainable option for those communities that are considering rail options to prove the concept and prove the market. Steve McBride says: “We are incredibly proud that the technology we created in the UK is leading the way for battery-powered train operations in the Americas.
This opens up a new market for Vivarail’s technology and shows that battery-power is a viable and efficient solution to decarbonise the railway.”
“Stopping short of investing in an expensive full railway system, we are able to provide the trains and literally pop platforms up to begin a safe and reliable rail service to generate the demand and prove whether what was thought to be theoretical demand is actually there or not.”
Leading the Way
Over the last decade, Vivarail has always stayed at the forefront. Not only is the company the first manufacturer to design and deliver a self-powered battery train for the UK market, and the first company to design and install a fully automatic battery charging facility on Network Rail’s infrastructure, but also the first provider of a zero-emission battery train approved for use in daily passenger service.
Steve McBride reveals that Vivarail’s proprietary battery technology, which was admired at COP26 held in November 2021 in Glasgow, showcasing one option for decarbonisation, has raised interest from various European countries, as well as the wider Americas and Australia.
“We offer the repurposing of existing trains, saving the customers significant cost. That’s a unique proposition, and I’m not aware of any other company that can do that.”
He explains that replacing the diesel engine and the fuel tanks with batteries means a very quick conversion of a highly polluting and noisy operation to one which is cleaner, greener, less noisy as well as much more cost-effective. “The total cost of ownership of our battery trains is almost half that of a traditional diesel train.”
Vivarail has just recently signed another important contract on home soil. Eversholt Rail Group, a train leasing company in the UK, has partnered with Vivarail to install battery technology on one of its electric trains.
The project will deliver additional capability in the form of battery power allowing trains to operate beyond the overhead wires.
Vivarail is also working with Great Western Railway to provide the UK’s first battery train and automatic fast charging equipment which will be used as part of a 12-month trial in daily passenger service on the GW network.
“This one train, which will replace a diesel train, will operate around about 270 miles a day and reduce CO2 emissions by 200,000 kilogrammes a year.
And that is just one train with one small operation. So, you can imagine how great the potential impact of our trains could be,” he points out, adding that the company is already looking at its next generation of battery technology.