Aug. 28 - A nature reserve in central Hungary has become a testing ground for self-contained, solar-powered train travel. Engineers say the narrow gauge train is the first of its kind, and could become a template for larger train transport systems. Matthew Stock reports.
This prototype railcar in Hungary was designed to be fully autonomous. It can generate and store its own energy, overcoming a key problem that has held back widespread use of electric vehicles - their limited range and the need to stop and recharge when the batteries run low. Named 'Vili', which translates literally as 'tram', the vehicle is covered by more than a hundred square feet of photovoltaic panels on its roof, which convert solar radiation into electricity. Laszlo Lengyel is from the Iploy Forest Company near Budapest where the railcar transports tourists through picturesque woodland. He says this self-powering railcar is the first of its kind. (SOUNDBITE) SPOKESPERSON FOR IPOLY FOREST CO., LASZLO LENGYEL, SAYING: "We are using a technology where we collect the solar energy and the electrical engines use this energy. This is the most special thing about it. There are examples around the world where railway vehicles use solar energy but from stations where solar panels are used. The fact that solar panels are installed on a moving vehicle and on top these are traditional type of solar panels, well, this is unique, I think." The train also boasts electric recovery brakes, similar to those used in Formula 1 racing cars, which recover and store part of the energy spent during braking and use it to propel the train later on. According to Sandor Suranyi from developers Ganzplan, the technology is ideal for narrow gauge transportation. (SOUNDBITE) CEO OF GANZPLAN, SANDOR SURANYI, SAYING: "The whole vehicle is one big invention because it doesn't have any equipment which would locally pollute the environment. There is no internal combustion engine, there is nothing that would pollute this strictly nature-protected area." The developers concede that problems like high maintenance costs need to be overcome. But if the figures add up, the engineers are hopeful they would be able to build a second, possibly larger vehicle, while also generating interest elsewhere in the world.