Faced with a worsening worldwide climate crisis, greener alternative energy solutions like hydrogen are being actively pursued by the largely fossil fuel-reliant global transportation sector. And while trains are generally viewed as an environmentally favorable transport choice, especially as compared to flying, rail travel is a contributor of 1% of global transport emissions. In the E.U., trains emitted 3.8 million metric tons of CO2 in 2019.
Globally, many railway companies have set up ambitious decarbonization targets for 2050 via the United Nations’ “Race to Zero” campaign, with urgency on these goals further bolstered by the grave health risks posed by air pollution. In the E.U. alone, more than 300,000 premature deaths were caused by air pollution in 2019.
“Rail pollution has significant and long-lasting negative impacts on public health, including increased rates of childhood asthma, lung disease, and premature death,” explains Cara Bottorff, managing senior analyst at environmental advocacy nonprofit Sierra Club. “Locomotive emissions are concentrated near ports and rail yards and pose significant health effects to neighboring communities.”
Germany, in particular, faces increased pressure to reduce emissions, as it responds to citizen lawsuits owed to its high levels of national air pollution. Meanwhile, the country—along with the rest of Europe—copes with spiked energy costs around Russian fuel disruptions as the Ukraine war rages on.
Worldwide, diesel trains are still commonplace. While more than half of trains in Europe today are electric, the investment for electrifying less-utilized and lower-revenue-generating routes (via overhead power lines or other infrastructure) can be cost-prohibitive. In these cases, hydrogen trains, which are compatible with non-electrified rail lines, can present a more viable, cost-effective alternative.
Apart from this ease of application and their overarching environmental benefits, hydrogen trains are additionally touted for their noise reduction. “Hydrogen trains offer significantly quieter operation for both passengers and those outside the trains,” Soua says.
Experts are projecting major growth for the hydrogen train market. Alstom states that around 6,000 passenger trains in Europe still run on diesel fuel, which will require replacement by 2035 in order to achieve climate targets. About a fifth of train journeys in Germany today are diesel-powered, with Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, reporting that between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains in the country could be replaced with hydrogen-powered models. “We will not buy any more diesel trains, in order to do even more to combat climate change,” Carmen Schwable, a spokesperson for LNVG, told DW in August. “We [also] are convinced that diesel trains will no longer be economically viable in the future.”
German gas and engineering company Linde has established the world’s first hydrogen filling station for passenger trains along the new Lower Saxony route, where the trains can refuel daily. But environmentalists caution that Germany’s new fleet is currently being powered by the more common “grey” hydrogen—a less environmentally-friendly version of hydrogen that’s reliant on fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure for its extraction. “Nearly all hydrogen is currently produced from fossil fuels,” explains Sierra Club’s Bottorff. “Hydrogen produced using fossil fuels continues to pollute our communities and environment.”