Virgin Trains has today launched Europe's first biodiesel passenger train in an effort to cut down on carbon emissions.
Biodiesel fuel is similar to petroleum diesel but is made from a blend of diesel and natural renewable resources.
Virgin is testing a B20 blend (20 per cent biofuel) provided by Greenergy Fuels Ltd, on one Virgin Voyager over the next six months.
Sir Richard Branson said of the trial: "This is a pioneering step we're taking. If the trial is a success and we convert our Voyager fleet to run on B20 biodiesel we could cut our carbon emissions by up to 14 per cent...the equivalent of taking 23,000 cars off the road."
The trial is part of a national biodiesel programme conducted by Virgin Trains, the Association of Train Operating Companies and the Rail Safety and Standards Board to pioneer a sustainable fuel for the rail industry.
Virgin CrossCountry managing director, Chris Gibb said: "The purpose of the trial is to see what carbon reduction is achieved and how the engines are affected by the fuel. If we switch over to biofuels then hopefully other train companies will follow us so that we are moving forward as an industry to make sure no-one gets left behind."
When asked why Virgin had not committed to trialling B100 (100 per cent biodiesel), Chris Gibb said: "It's a six month trial and we will learn a lot during the trial. We are trialling at 20 per cent because we don't want to take any risks on performance."
Branson added: "We have particular engines which are not necessarily suitable for the 100 per cent blend [at the moment] but if the blend of 20 per cent works I believe there is the possibility we can go up to 100 per cent – which is the equivalent of taking 100,000 cars off the road."
Greenergy uses rapeseed oil, palm oil and soybean oil in its biodiesel blend. It sources around 70 per cent of the crops in the UK and the rest from the US and Asia depending on harvesting seasons. But some groups see crop usage in this way as a threat to global food supplies.
George Monbiot, an environmental campaigner has said of biofuels that "...fuels made from crops such as oil seed or rape or wheat are a formula for environmental and humanitarian disaster – setting up competition for food between people and [transport]."
When asked about these concerns Branson was not dismissive: "It is certainly a point worthy of debate," he said "but I think there is an awful long way to go before it starts to damage food supplies."
Branson was keen to emphasise that while encouraging train travel, air travel and even space travel, it was time to make an adjustment to Virgin's carbon footprint. He said: "Every company has its duty to use green fuels. Next year we will fly one of our B747s on a test flight using a biofuel – it won't be ethanol because that freezes at 15,000ft." He added: "A year ago if I'd said we would be flying a green fuel, I would have been certified..."
The cost of going greener will depend largely on whether "clean" fuels will come tax free. At the moment, the tax on clean fuel is a lot higher than the tax on "dirty" fuel. But Gordon Brown, who met the Voyager train at Euston for its maiden voyage to Wales today, was certainly supportive of the initiative: "I want Britain to be a world leader in the development and use of environmentally-friendly fuels. I want every train company to consider this."
Virgin was elusive about the cost of rolling-out the fuel on the entire fleet, stating that the cost depended on what other rail companies did. Gibb said: "If we try and go it alone then the cost could be significant."
The greener train will be running on several routes over the next six months including: Birmingham New Street- Edinburgh, York-Bristol Temple Meads and Manchester Piccadilly–Reading.
Virgin has pledged to invest 100 per cent of any profits made by its train and plane companies, for the next ten years, into developing clean fuels.
Report by Felicity Cousins