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The first battery-powered trains have arrived in Europe

<i>Hitachi Rail</i><br/>The trains are running in several regions of Italy.
Hitachi Rail
The trains are running in several regions of Italy.

Julia Buckley, CNN

(CNN) — As the aviation world looks to battery-powered planes to help sustainability, the rail sector has been quietly working on a faster alternative. Enter Europe’s first battery-powered trains.

A 20-strong fleet of Hitachi Masaccio trains is now running in Italy, where they are known as “Blues.” It’s the first phase of a 1.23 billion euros project which will add 135 battery-powered trains to national operator Trenitalia’s network, running in Calabria, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Tuscany, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

In Calabria, the trains are running on the Ionian Coast, while Sicilian routes include Messina to Palermo and Messina-Catania-Syracuse. Of course, not all the trains on these lines will be the Blues, so it’s pot luck which travelers end up on.

The three- and four-carriage, 300-seater trains are hybrid, working on battery, electric and diesel power. “It is the first time that batteries are used as the main energy source on a fleet of trains for commercial use in Europe,” Trenitalia said in a statement.

The fleet – made with 93% recyclable materials – will cut carbon emissions and fuel consumption by 50% versus diesel trains, Hitachi said in a statement. And by running on batteries through urban areas, they can also eliminate emissions and reduce noise pollution. A “driver advisory system” also suggests the optimal speed to reduce energy consumption.

The trains have a short range of up to 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) on battery alone, but can recharge as they go, using the pantograph (the apparatus on top of the train which connects it to a power line) or by braking, meaning it can recharge multiple times during a journey. Maximum speed is 160 kph (100 mph).

They are also slung at platform level to allow no-steps entry for travelers with mobility issues.

A battery-powered future

Europe’s rail network is ever expanding, but nearly half – 40% – of the continent’s lines have yet to be electrified, and more than half the trains are powered only by diesel, according to Hitachi.

Some lines face an uphill battle to electrification because of their geography. In Italy alone, there are over 2,500 miles of track that has not yet been electrified – with Hitachi claiming that the Masaccio line offers “an immediate solution to help decarbonize European passenger rail.”

The next model of the Masaccio is due in two years time. It is predicted to run on batteries only, with a journey range of over 100 kilometers (62 miles). Hitachi also plans to retrofit the trains that have only just debuted.

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