Virgin trains to trial biodiesel mix

Train operator Virgin is to trial a fuel which contains 20% biodiesel in one of its engines, with the intention of upping the biofuel in the mix and rolling the scheme out across its fleet.

The initiative is the first time in Europe that a monitored trial of biodiesel has taken place on an operational passenger train and reflect’s the group’s commitment to plough all profits from its transport businesses back into the development of clean fuels.

At the London launch of the scheme on Thursday, Virgin boss Richard Branson told reporters: “It’s fantastic that we are leading the rest of Europe in developing this fuel.

“We’ve been testing an engine in situ for many weeks on a 20% blend and it’s worked fine. As the engines get changed [on our fleet] we could be able to go up to engines that could go up to 100%.”

Although the company has been given a tax concession on the fuel used in the trial, duty on the biodiesel is still higher than that on the fuel powering the rest of the fleet.

“At the moment the tax on clean fuels quite bizarrely is a lot more expensive than on dirty fuels, whereas in the rest of Europe they don’t actually tax clean fuels,” said Mr Branson.

“Our indications from Gordon Brown are that he will address this problem. If it’s not addressed we will forever have dirty fuels in trains and cars.”

While running the train on the biodiesel mix substantially reduces its CO2 emissions, there is still widespread concern over the impact cultivation of energy crops could have on food prices and biodiversity as their cultivation displaces traditional agriculture and, in some regions, eats into forest land.

Mr Branson gave assurances that the fuel used in the trial comes from sustainable sources, with the bulk of the mix made up of British rapeseed oil and the remainder coming from American soy and Asian palm oil.

But he said he did not believe that responsible production of energy crops was currently a threat.

“It’s certainly worthy of debate,” he said.

“If you take sugar-based biofuels sugar is not an essential food. Actually right now sugar is at an all time low in terms of price and there’s a glut.

“There’s an awfully long way to go before it starts damaging food prices. Corn-based ethanol in America certainly has pushed up corn prices somewhat but I don’t think it’s eating into the food supply.

“At the moment I don’t believe that it’s a major danger. The important thing is that you’re pioneering clean fuels which will be replaced by cellulose fuels [derived from] grass, waste and willow trees and possibly synthetic products as well.

“Getting this industry going is important to the environment.”

Before the launch Gordon Brown, Chancellor and Prime minister in waiting, said: “I want Britain to be a world leader in the use and development of environmentally friendly fuels and I believe they will play a fundamental part in our efforts to reduce emissions and tackle climate change.

“I wish Virgin every success with these pilot schemes and I look forward to hearing the results.”

Virgin CrossCountry’s managing director, Chris Gibb, accepted that there were hurdles to overcome, saying that the logistics of setting up and running fuel depots and pumping stations which are shared with other operators was likely to be the biggest issue.

“Anything that’s innovative like this is always difficult. I’m sure there will be challenges but we’re determined to press forward with environmentally sensible solutions,” he said.

“We can make the costs manageable if we all work together on this.”

Further trials of clean energy are in the pipeline across the Virgin group, with Mr Branson saying that some time next year his aviation company would carry out a test flight with a Boeing 747 using biofuels.

Sam Bond

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