Hybrid maintenance vehicles help Austria’s railways to decarbonize

Hybrid maintenance vehicles help Austria’s railways to decarbonize

Maintenance vehicles manufactured by Plasser & Theurer will reduce CO₂ and noise emissions, improve health and safety at work sites, and boost the productivity of the railway maintenance operations in Austria.

Rail travel is by far more environmentally friendly than other forms of transportation. In Austria, the national rail operator Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) aims to operate sustainably, and it powers its trains and stations using electricity generated from renewable energy sources. ÖBBs goal is climate-neutral for mobility sector by 2030 and group-wide climate neutrality by 2050.

As railways represent critical infrastructure, it requires maintenance to ensure the highest levels of safety, reliability, and efficiency. Special rail vehicles are needed to inspect and maintain the tracks, overhead lines, and superstructures, and until now, these vehicles have been diesel-powered. ÖBB’s maintenance fleet has been in use for around 40 years and is now being gradually replaced.

Innovative hybrid vehicles

When ÖBB decided to renew its aging maintenance fleet, it ordered innovative hybrid vehicles that will support its transition to carbon neutrality. The new vehicles will be supplied by Plasser & Theurer, a leading manufacturer of track infrastructure vehicles.

Plasser & Theurer has been working together with ABB on propulsion systems for around ten years and chose ABB to provide state-of-the-art traction converters and high-performance lithium-ion batteries for 51 vehicles. ABB’s contract includes an option to supply traction equipment for a further 45 vehicles.

Improved working conditions

The hybrid maintenance vehicles will reduce CO2 emissions at work sites to a minimum and improve working conditions. Zero-emission operation in battery mode enables maintenance to be undertaken in tunnels without exposing personnel to exhaust gases. Residents living close to rail lines will also notice a positive difference when work is being carried out near their homes.

The new vehicles will be deployed around the Austrian rail network to ensure rapid availability in the event of unexpected disruptions. They will also contribute to rail infrastructure projects from ÖBB, including the 130-kilometer high-performance Koralm Railway as well as the Semmering Base tunnel, which will enable trains to travel at speeds up to 230 km/h.

Edgar Keller, President of ABB’s Traction Division said: “We are proud to be selected by Plasser & Theurer as their trusted traction and battery technology partner. ABB brings many years of experience in the field of electric and hybrid propulsion solutions, combined with longstanding experience with battery storage systems in a variety of applications. The use of ABB’s high power and long-life batteries enables a rapid transition to more sustainable operation and improves the health and safety of maintenance personnel.”

  • © Plasser & Theurer, 2022-2023
  • © Plasser & Theurer, 2022-2023
  • © Plasser & Theurer, 2022-2023

High-performance traction equipment

The new maintenance vehicles will operate with the rail system’s 15 kV 16.7 Hz AC overhead supply, and can travel in full-electric mode at speeds up to 120 km/h. When power from the overhead contact line is not available – on new sections of track, for example, or due to disruptions - the powerful ABB traction battery will enable electric operation to continue. The battery is based on LTO technology and is particularly suitable for hybrid drive solutions. Benefits include a high level of inherent safety, high power and fast charging capabilities, long lifetime, and excellent low temperature performance.

ABB’s flexible converter technology enables the on-board battery used for work site operation to be charged in three different ways: from the overhead contact line, through regenerative braking, and from a back-up diesel-electric power pack. The diesel engine will extend the vehicle’s operating range if catenary power is not available for a longer period, or in an emergency. On-board energy storage means that the diesel engine can be downsized and enables it to be operated at optimal efficiency for longer.

A challenging aspect of the project was to integrate the different hybrid and fully electric operating modes, and accommodate the drive components – including inverters, batteries, and transformers – in the available installation space. Experts from ABB supported Plasser & Theurer and assisted in resolving these challenges. The battery system technology developed by ABB proved essential to ensuring that the necessary safety requirements were met.

Improved maintenance productivity

The silent propulsion system from ABB allows maintenance to be done at night and in densely populated urban environments without noise or exhaust gases. This provides scope for improved productivity in maintenance activities.

The first of the new vehicles was presented in June 2023 by ÖBB together with Plasser & Theurer. Several vehicles are currently undergoing the official approval process to authorize them for use on the rail network. Testing includes operation in temperatures down to -25oC and up to +45oC as well as driving at speeds up to 120 km/h.

Rail is already more environmentally friendly than road or air travel and will become even more sustainable through initiatives like ÖBB’s objective of carbon-neutrality. Effective maintenance plays a vital role in ensuring the smooth operation of railways, and Plasser & Theurer’s hybrid vehicles with ABB traction equipment will enable maintenance operations to decarbonize and transition to cleaner, safer electric operation.

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