ONE of the highlight exhibits at the outside track area at last month’s InnoTrans was Trenitalia’s Blues multiple-unit. Built by Hitachi Rail in Italy, and based on the manufacturer’s Masaccio platform, Blues is Europe’s first tri-mode - electric, diesel, battery - passenger train.

Trenitalia has ordered up to 135 Blues trains under a €1.2bn framework contract and the first few sets will enter service by the end of the year.

Hitachi Rail says the train will reduce emissions and fuel consumption by 50% compared with diesel trains and CEO, Mr Andrew Barr, is now targeting the rapid replacement of diesel engines with batteries. “I believe that batteries are the best alternative way of powering rolling stock,” he says, referring to hydrogen traction “as not yet credible,” although Hitachi is trialling the technology in Japan in cooperation with Toyota.

As well as Italy, Barr says Hitachi is working with fleet owners in Britain to replace one of the diesel engines on the five-car bi-mode class 800 train with a battery pack. Installation is expected in 2023. “That alone produces a 30% saving in fuel because when the trains are in the station all of the engines are switched off,” Barr says. “The batteries can provide all of the hotel power and power when the train is at the depot at night.”

“I believe that batteries are the best alternative way of powering rolling stock.”

Andrew Barr

Barr adds that battery technology is evolving fast, increasing the viability of the technology for rail applications. He highlights targeted charging pioneered in the bus market along with Hitachi’s Battery as a Service model, under which the company continues to manage the battery’s life.

“If a cell is defective, we change it,” Barr says. “We also manage the charging and look at driver behaviour. I think we could apply that technology and approach very strongly in the rail market. In the next few years, I believe this will be a major area of development.”

While encouraged by British retrofit projects, Barr is concerned by the lack of clarity on future rolling stock orders. None are currently in the pipeline. And the continuing process of reform and transition to Great British Railways (GBR) is commonly cited by the industry as creating uncertainty in the market, to the ire of suppliers.

The unease for Hitachi is pertinent given that work on the two orders underway at its Newton Aycliffe plant is well advanced. Testing of the first of 33 bi-mode inter-city trains for East Midlands Railway (EMR) and 23 200km/h class 807 inter-city trains for the West Coast Partnership began this summer. “Next year is the focus year for some of those [government] decisions to be taken,” Barr says.

Hitachi is also negotiating with Alstom, its 50:50 joint venture partner in the £1.97bn contract to supply 54 eight-car high-speed trains for HS2, on how manufacturing of these sets will be undertaken in Britain.

Barr says that Newton Aycliffe is available to support European orders although this is complicated by Brexit. He adds that Hitachi has invested in welding and painting facilities at the plant while optimising skills using experience from its plants in Pistoia and Reggio Calabria in Italy to standardise working processes. “It’s an asset,” he says.

In contrast with Britain, the workload at Hitachi’s Italian plants, which it inherited following the acquisition of AnsaldoBreda in 2015, is strong according to Barr. As well as high hopes for the Masaccio in future European tenders, he is intent on further developing the ETR 1000 high-speed train after Hitachi completed the acquisition of Bombardier’s contribution to the project from Alstom earlier this year.

The deal to acquire Thales’ Ground Transportation Systems business is also on the verge of completion in early 2023.

Hitachi announced the £1.66bn deal in August 2021 and Barr describes it as a “real game-changer.” Barr is planning to integrate the two businesses, simplifying the offer to the market. Critically, he says the deal will bolster the supplier’s global presence, including in Germany, Canada, Singapore and Mexico.

He adds that the acquisition is a key component of Hitachi’s strategy to provide a “digitally-based” offer to the market where hardware is supplemented by digital technologies, ticketing systems and multi-modal journey planning As for further acquisitions, Barr says Hitachi is suffering from “indigestion” right now, but that it is open to digital growth. “When you’re a big organisation like ours, that is not so easy,” Barr says. “We might look at whether there is a technology that can help to bring that along a little bit.”

Supply chain crisis

Size has to a certain extent helped Hitachi to weather the effects of the global supply chain crisis, according to Barr, who says his teams are working hard to minimise delays to any projects. He says in some areas the business has been fortunate to have already placed or received necessary orders. For new projects though it is a challenge, particularly in Italy. He takes a realistic approach to managing the issue.

“There’s no point in trying to put the squeeze on our suppliers too much,” Barr says. “They are all feeling the same pinch. We just have to work through that and find the most sustainable way of solving the problems of sourcing raw materials.”

In the longer term, Barr believes the trends of sustainability and modal shift are exciting for rail. He also believes that today’s young people will be more reliant on public rather than private transport, putting pressure on industry to deliver credible and sustainable products. He seems confident that Hitachi is well placed to deliver.

“They are not going to be interested if it’s not green so it’s incumbent on us to provide that kind of technology through these products,” Barr says.