All aboard? Researcher pitches Okanagan Valley zero emission railway

The project is currently in the research phase while investors wait for the business case

How residents and tourists travel throughout the Okanagan Valley may drastically change in the next 10 years if the research project Dr. Gordon Lovegrove has been working on comes to fruition.

Lovegrove is an associate professor in the school of engineering at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus and has spent the past 15 years researching the implementation of a zero-emission train system throughout the Okanagan Valley. He said in recent months, the project has started to gain momentum thanks in large part to its main advocate the K’ul Management Group Ltd., the Penticton Indian Band’s development corporation.

“I first reached out to Penticton’s city planner Anthony Haddad about a zero-emission hydro technology that would sustain our quality of life with a minimal eco-footprint, he directed me to the PIB,” said Lovegrove. “And the vision and mandate of the PIB is all about sustainability and high-tech, innovative manufacturing, so it was exactly what they were looking for.

“The key thing is the First Nations are starting this; this is Indigenous-led. We were in Toronto with PIB Chief Chad Eneas in the Minister of Transportation’s office and they were flabbergasted that we have a team in Penticton ready to start once we get the green light from Transport Canada and the federal government.”

Lovegrove said he sees an overuse of personal vehicles in today’s transit system, which has a detrimental impact on the environment and space in the Okanagan Valley. He suggests that a hydrogen-powered rail system could run alongside Highway 97 or another major highway route and connect the major cities in the valley with the existing rail system across the border in the U.S.

READ ALSO: B.C. train that derailed and killed three ‘just started moving on its own’

“It would be a highway speed rail between cities and city street speed rails. We need something linking to the existing railway track in Oroville to Vernon where the track then connects already to Kamloops,” said Lovegrove. “Then you’ve got a backbone to get people into our valley, and through it, to connect them to services.”

While this initiative may sound costly, Lovegrove said it is actually achievable at about $5 million per kilometre versus $150 million per km or $450 million per km for alternative rail systems. He said the technology to power this system, which would combine electric and hydrogen power, already exists and is being used elsewhere in the world.

“The principle of rail transport is so old. Go back hundreds of years and it’s been around forever. And we’ve had a rail system here before with the Kettle Valley Railway, and it was taken out because this great thing called the private car gave us extra flexibility and freedom,” said Lovegrove. “There are two aspects to this technology (in this project), called tram-train technology that uses hydrogen fuel cells to power it. So it looks like a sky train but it runs at-grade, and in Europe, they have now been running for over 1o years.”

Lovegrove explained that the K’ul Management Group Ltd. is looking at construction a hydrogen facility on PIB land that will ultimately power the railway system. He added that it could have multiple applications though.

“Nothing is set in concrete but sites are being discussed for a high-tech, sustainability-oriented manufacturing and sustainability warehouse. And there’s a grant from the provincial government that looks to partner with us on site development and to set up a solar powered hydrogen production and charging station for public cars and heavy-duty trucks,” said Lovegrove. “The first phase would see UBC researchers partnering with the PIB to develop full-scale production of retrofit kits for rail locomotives, heavy-duty trucks, city buses, and larger cars.”

READ ALSO: Okanagan professor pitches passenger rail

Since he began researching this project through UBCO, Lovegrove has been invited to sit on panels, attend and present at conferences like the First Things First Okanagan event last weekend, and lead presentations for various government organizations. He said when the first feasibility study was conducted for the project 10 years ago, they projected the system could be fully implemented by 2040, but that time line has since changed.

“Along came this tram technology that allowed the rail to be embedded in city streets and that lowered the cost significantly, so now we’re saying by 2030.”

Lovegrove said right now investors are waiting on the business case for a project like this, to understand what the potential return would be. He said by retrofitting existing rail cars to use the technology, it effectively cuts down on cost and ensures investors would see a sizable return.

“So the business model is what’s going to drive investment in hydro technology in the Valley. So if the plant (is constructed) and everything goes well with the partners and collaboration, the research program would expand to develop opportunities for any vehicles to be retrofit with hydrogen fuel cell technology,” said Lovegrove. “Once the business case is done, and this is not by any means a done deal, it’s a smart thing to do. We’re talking a multi-billion dollar commercialization upside. It will bring jobs, tourists, and connect us to huge markets like eco-tourism.”

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.

Jordyn Thomson | Reporter
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