Will Hydrogen Power The Trains Of The Future?

With governments putting pressure on transport companies to introduce cleaner modes of travel, several companies are looking to hydrogen as the future of green transportation. Hydrogen fuel cells offer a longer range and faster fuelling than electric alternatives, which means we could soon see hydrogen trains in cities and towns around the world.

This month, the IEA released its 10-point-plan to cut oil use, with one of the points being to “Make public transport cheaper; incentivize micro-mobility, walking and cycling”. This has been an initiative continuously pushed by city governments through the introduction of schemes such as emissions charges and pedestrianized streets. Rail has long been seen as one of the cleanest modes of transport due to the high passenger capacity. In fact, carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions fell by 35.1g per passenger-km in 2019-2020. And now it could become even greener.  

Trains typically use diesel as their fuel source, meaning the industry still relies heavily on the production of fossil fuels. But now hydrogen could provide an alternative. Despite hydrogen being expensive to produce, it currently offers several benefits over electric battery alternatives. To power a train, electric batteries would need to be extremely heavy and large. In addition, they have a limited range and need to be charged regularly, which takes time. In comparison, hydrogen fuel cells offer a longer range and trains can be fuelled with hydrogen much in the same way as with diesel, in a matter of minutes. 

At present, hydrogen can be produced using natural gas (grey/blue hydrogen) or using green energy sources, such as wind- and solar-generated electricity (green hydrogen). This means that the type of hydrogen used to fuel trains would be important as grey hydrogen doesn’t solve the emissions problem and blue hydrogen requires the capture and storage of emissions. Countries across Europe and the Middle East are now battling it out to become green hydrogen leaders, meaning that the availability of the clean energy source is expected to increase significantly over the next decade. 

The first hydrogen passenger train emerged in Berlin in 2016, created by Alstom and named Coradia iLint. A zero-emissions train, it can carry up to 150 seated passengers with a range of 1,000km and a speed of 140 km per hour, emitting just steam and condensed water. It started commercial services in 2018. Alstom’s managing director for Germany and Austria stated, “Our two pre-series trains of the Coradia iLint have proven over the past year and a half that fuel cell technology can be used successfully in daily passenger service.”

Now Siemens is looking to expand Germany’s hydrogen-powered train services by introducing a new green train in Bavaria. Siemens Mobility and rail operator Bayerische Regiobahn signed a contract this month with testing of the prototype expected to start in mid-2023 for services to begin between Augsburg and Füsse at the beginning of 2024. 

The two-carriage train will use fuel cells located on the train’s roof as well as underfloor batteries. Albrecht Neumann, CEO at Siemens Mobility, stated “The hydrogen-powered drive is an emission-free, advanced form of propulsion for trains that decarbonizes rail transport and makes a substantial contribution toward reaching our climate goals.”

In Japan, the country’s biggest railway company, East Japan Railway Co., is planning to test its first hydrogen-powered train this month. The Hybari train, which cost $35 million, has two carriages and can achieve a range of 140k, at a top speed of 100km per hour. East Japan partnered with Toyota Motor Corp. and Hitachi Ltd. to build the train. The companies expect to commence commercial services in 2030.

Japan has made a net-zero carbon emissions pledge for 2050, and initiatives like this will help the country to achieve this goal. The government hopes to increase the amount of hydrogen used to 20 million tonnes by 2050 with energy firms such as Iwatani Corp. and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. boosting production to drive down the price of the energy source.

In the U.K., the Scottish Government has announced an aim to phase out ScotRail’s diesel trains by 2035. At present, around 40 percent of the Scottish train network is electrified, although this is mainly concentrated in the center of the country. Manufacturers, such as Vivarail, are also investing in the construction of battery trains. And foreign manufacturers, such as Spain’s Talgo, have shown interest in developing hydrogen trains in Scotland. 

Meanwhile, in England, the U.K.’s first hydrogen-fuelled train was developed at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education in 2019. The HydroFLEX is expected to replace diesel trains between now and 2040. Porterbrook and Northern funded its fitting with hydrogen fuel tanks, a fuel cell, and a battery pack to allow the passenger train to run with zero emissions.

With several countries around the world pushing for the decarbonization of public transport, many transport and manufacturing companies are now investing in the development of hydrogen passenger trains, with promising ranges and speeds that make them competitive against electric battery alternatives. This means that commercial hydrogen chains are likely to become increasingly common around the globe within the next decade. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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