Lithgow Railway Workshop’s role in creating the world-first solar-powered passenger train for the Byron Bay Railroad Company has been recognised with an engineering award.
The 1949 heritage two-car diesel train, part of the Lithgow State Mine Railway collection, came to the workshop in derelict condition.
The train is now part of the Byron Bay tourism circuit, ferrying up to 10,000 passengers a month depending on the season.
“It has turned out better than expected,” Lithgow Railway Workshop director Tim Elderton said.
In summer, he said the train was able to operate all day without recharge, including undertaking 16 one-way trips a day, and come back into the shed to recharge overnight with 80 per cent of its capacity left.
In winter, it requires charging once or twice a day. The system generates more power than it uses, with electricity being fed back into the local grid.
“It’s the only railway company I know of, that instead of paying for diesel fuel gets a rebate for their fuel,” Mr Elderton said.
The Lithgow workshop was approached by Byron Bay Railroad company to restore the self-propelled carriage and driver’s cab to its original condition, powered by two 300 horsepower Cummins diesel engines, as it was originally designed.
Mr Elderton said the team worked to get the train finished, complete with a paint job restoring its original colours.
Meanwhile the Byron Bay Railroad company was hard at work preparing 3km of the Murwillumbah line and was not quite ready to have the refurbished train in service.
For 12 months up to 2015 the train was used locally, running tourism and party trains.
But then, when the train and the Byron rail line were both finished, Mr Elderton said the Lithgow Railway Workshop team was was thrown “one last challenge”.
“They asked did I think it could run on solar power,” he said.
“My reaction was, 'What?’
“I did some rough calculations – it was only three kilometres, all flat – I looked at the new technology available and I said yeah, it could be done.”
One of the diesel engines was removed to make way for a solar drive package, which was designed, fabricated and installed by the Lithgow team.
They were not aware at the time that they were attempting something brand new.
“No one had done it before, it was the world’s first solar powered passenger train,” Mr Elderton said.
Team members take monthly trips to Byron Bay to service the train, which now runs seven days a week and “hasn’t missed a beat”, Mr Elderton says.
The innovative design has won the Lithgow Railway Workshop team a number of awards, including an Australian Design Award.
The project was also named the northern NSW overall winner of the Australian Engineers Excellence Awards.
Their latest accolade came at the national Australian Engineers Excellence Awards, at which the project was named one of six winners from 48 finalists.
It was a shared win for the Lithgow Railway Workshop, the Byron Bay Railroad Company, Nickel Energy, which supplied the solar equipment and Elmofo, for its electric traction components.
“I have never had such a talented bunch of tradesmen,” Mr Elderton said of his Lithgow crew.
The Byron project was treated as an opportunity for training, with the drawings completed by young draftsman Timothy Purser and the majority of the welding carried out by apprentice fitter and welder, now qualified tradesman, Beau Wade.
The tradies will be kept busy for some time yet. New enquiries have been coming in for other solar powered railway projects, with the first expected to arrive in about two months.
Currently, the team is working on Southern Aurora train carriages, one of which left complete on the visiting steam train on Monday afternoon.
Heritage and passenger train work represent only a small portion of the Lithgow Railway Workshop’s business, with 90 per cent of its regular work on freight trains.
It's estimated the railway workshop pumps $5m into the Lithgow economy each year, between wages and supply. It employs 45 people, with another five based in Sydney.