First Fully Solar-Powered Train Hits the Track

Two 1940s-era railcars have been saved from indefinite retirement and converted into a solar-powered shuttle train in one of Australia's most iconic surf towns. . (Photo: Byron Bay Rail Company)

It’s not easy luring tourists away from the famed white sand beaches of Byron Bay. But in this legendarily laid-back Australian surf town, situated about 100 miles south of Brisbane on the rugged New South Wales coast, a solar panel-topped vintage train might just do the trick.

Opening to the public earlier this month along a 1.9-mile-long stretch of track that sat abandoned for more than a decade, the Byron Bay Rail Company has breathed new life into a pair of defunct World War II-era railcars. They're now used to shuttle passengers between Byron Bay’s bustling central business district and the North Beach precinct, home to sprawling residential developments, a burgeoning cultural district and the Elements of Byron Resort. Originally employed to transport immigrants around New South Wales as they arrived in waves following the war, the two “600 class” railcars rescued and restored by Byron Bay Rail Company were built at Sydney’s Chullora Railway Workshops in 1949 using the same lightweight aluminum construction as aircraft bombers.

After remaining in service as part of a regional passenger rail network until the early 1990s, the aging railcars were decommissioned and sat neglected — ravaged by time and harsh Aussie climes — in a railyard for more than 20 years. You’d never know it by looking at these nearly 70-year-old workhorses today, though: They’ve been spiffed up, kitted out, topped with custom-made photovoltaic panels and reconfigured to accommodate up to 100 seated beach bums (and, presumably, their longboards).

It’s those curved train-top PV panels that truly set the Byron Bay Rail Company’s flagship train apart from other heritage rail restoration projects.

Drawing additional power from a 30-kilowatt solar array located atop the train’s storage shed as well as energy recaptured by a regenerative breaking system, the train is billed as the first in the world to be completely powered by the sun. There’s a diesel engine involved, sure, but that's just there for weight, balance and posterity — and for emergency backup in the unlikely event that the electric grid fails. (A second diesel engine was removed during the restoration process.)

Solar energy captured by the 6.5-kW train-top solar panels is stored directly in an onboard lithium battery system that powers dual electric AC traction motors, lighting, control circuits and the like. When stopped at its home platform, the train plugs into chargers for quick battery top-offs with electricity produced by the storage shed's rooftop solar array. The 77 kilowatt-hour battery can hold enough juice for 12 to 15 runs on a single charge.

During freak, prolonged periods of cloudiness — clear skies normally dominate over easy-going Byron Bay but, hey, this isn’t the Sunshine Coast — when the solar arrays don't capture enough sun, the train taps into the main electric grid supply using renewable energy sold by community-based utility Enova Energy. So even when the Byron Bay Rail Company isn’t using its own solar, it’s still running on clean energy. It helps that the route is relatively flat and straight.

Byron Bay Rail Company's North Beach Station
While there are only two stations on Byron Bay's privately owned rail line, an intermediary station may be added to the 3-km stretch of tracks. (Photo: Byron Bay Rail Company)

An on-brand addition to a sustainability embracing town

In a tourism-driven beach town best known for its free-wheeling bohemian vibe (think of a mash-up of Malibu and Asheville, North Carolina, but with antipodean accents), the Byron Bay Rail Company’s first-in-the-world fully solar-powered shuttle train certainly has the tourist-friendly novelty factor going for it. It’s a nifty example of historic rail preservation with a distinctly 21st century twist — and it's a pleasant way to get out of the sun for a spell. (One caveat: the scenery along this abbreviated stretch of rail is less than spectacular.)

For now, service will run hourly from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. A one-way trip from station to station takes 10 minutes and costs 3 Australian dollars for an adult fare.

Despite the out-of-towner appeal, Byron Bay Rail Company doesn't just exist as newfangled diversion for tourists. Operating as a not-for-profit enterprise, the AU$4 million (a little over $3 million) line was envisioned as a way to alleviate vehicular gridlock between traffic-plagued downtown Byron Bay and the rapidly growing North Beach area. Because, really, there’s no bigger bummer in the chillest of chill surf towns than sitting in gnarly traffic for 40 minutes trying to get to the beach.

The close proximity of North Beach station to Elements of Byron Resort is also rather convenient considering that Aussie businessman Brian Flannery owns both.

Sunset, Byron Bay, Australia
Best known for its iconic lighthouse, spectacular beaches and counter-culture character, Byron Bay also has a rather notorious traffic problem. (Photo: Jenny Brown/flickr)

After making his fortune in coal mining, Flannery turned his attention to the hospitality industry in 2016 with the opening of the Elements of Byron Resort, a sustainably designed — and slightly New Age-y — property with sumptuous guest villas, beachfront fine dining and plenty of relaxed, “authentically Byron” vibes. Now, in a nice bit of blatant irony, the former coal baron is dabbling in solar-powered transport as well.

"I think everyone knows that Byron's very conscious about anything to do with the environment," Flannery tells ABC News. "I think international tourists will come here to have a look at this world's first solar train.”

Byron Bay Rail Company points out that although the resort and the train share an owner, they operate independently. (The latter, because it operates as a nonprofit, is required to maintain the state-owned rail corridor and rail infrastructure at its own, non-government-subsidized cost.) That being said, the train is not a glorified shuttle bus linking Flannery’s hippie-luxe resort with central Byron Bay. It’s also a viable and potentially replicable means of public transport in a quickly growing coastal region that makes good use of disused rail infrastructure. For park-and-ride commuters, additional parking was built next to the North Beach station; for cyclists, bike racks are available at both stations. Bikes are allowed on board free of charge.

Solar array atop Byron Bay Rail Company storage shed
The PV panel-clad vintage train's storage shed is also topped with solar panels. Excess energy that's not used to charge the train's battery is fed back into the grid. (Photo: Byron Bay Rail Company)

Going from coal to solar Down Under

Although Byron Bay Rail Company is helping to preserve Australian rail heritage, embracing clean energy and keeping dazed tourists off the roads — while providing locals with a car-free way to get into the center of town — not everyone was a fan when the eight-years-in-the-making project, first envisioned as a non-solar endeavor, began nearing completion. Some detractors failed to see the benefits of a zippy, solar-powered rail line.

“We're not opposed to a train, per se, just the way it's been done. It's a joy ride for Elements guests," John Johnston of the Belongil Action Group told the Sydney Morning Herald in July.

According to Traveller, some local landowners took issue with the proximity of the new rail service to their property and threatened legal action — though, keep in mind, the actual rail line has been in place for decades, it had just been dormant since 2004.

Others, including John Grimes of the Australian Solar Council, decided to embrace the world’s first fully solar-powered train well before its inaugural run. “A fully electric train powered by the sun is a really fantastic project,” Grimes told the Morning Herald, pointing out the unlikely but encouraging involvement of an erstwhile coal baron.

“People coming out of old fossil energy are embracing solar. We now have other options that are cheaper and cleaner and they understand that," he said. "Earlier this year, the US coal museum in Kentucky converted to full solar power. These are all signs of the solar future." Amen.