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Mass Transit Goes Solar

One of the greatest sources of energy at our disposal is the sun. While technically finite, it will run out long after human consumption is no longer needed. There’s little processing to be done before it can be utilized, and it results in far less pollution than other energy sources. However, it’s fairly uncommon, with only a handful of countries using it to its full potential.

Once such country- or continent, if you want to be specific- is Australia. The land down under recently unveiled a train that runs solely on solar power, the first in the world. This was created to help combat the gridlock that Byron Bay (where the train is located) suffers from during holidays. Before this 100-seat train was refurbished by volunteers, the beach town struggled when tourists came in, due to a lack of public transit options. Aside from clearing the roads, there’s also the train’s novelty that attracts riders. For $3 AU (around $2 domestic), you can take the two-mile long route between the primary business district and the northern part of town, with 12-15 trips possible per charge.

The nonprofit that runs the train, Byron Bay Railroad Company, was eager to take on the challenge and excited for how it will revolutionize the town. “We were aware that it had not been done before and wanted to push the boundaries,” says Jeremy Holmes, development director for the company. “Our service has had no government support or funding at all, but for this to be replicated or improved upon, the key is for the government to work with private enterprise on small custom initiatives. Our service provides an example of how a niche operation, with the involvement of some very clever engineers, can harness the sun’s energy for sustainable transport solutions.”

Part of the challenge was updating the train, which was first built not long after World War II, to use solar power. Originally, the train used two diesel engines for power, but one has since been replaced with electric motors and batteries. The second diesel engine remains, however, as a backup in case of an emergency. As for the batteries, they can be recharged using the solar panels on the roof of the vehicle or with panels installed at the station.

However, it’s worth noting that the train is more a novelty than a genuine update to public transit. The route it takes is meant to mostly service a beach resort, and will only make trips once an hour. The short route will also allow it to be more of a case study: a test to see if solar powered trains are financially and technically viable. While trains that use solar power do exist, this is the first case of one directly creating its own power, rather than being connected to a solar grid. India has a train where on-the-spot solar power runs features such as air conditioning, and the Netherlands have trains run entirely by wind. This is the next logical step.

Nevertheless, the Byron Bay Railroad Company has done something incredible that will make transportation far more affordable and clean than it is now. With the number of sunny days that Australia can receive per year- up to 200 days, according to Popular Mechanics– it takes advantage of natural benefits to solve a problem facing the town. Jameson Dow of Electrek comments, “It could serve a function of reducing traffic, travel time or emissions from resort visitors shuttling themselves back and forth to the beach. And it’s a fun idea, so why not?”

Why not enjoy a train ride and admire green tech, indeed?

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