Hydrogen Trains are a Reality in 2019

The Hydrogen Train

The hydrogen powered train has entered passenger service in Germany. In 2018 Germany launched the world’s first two hydrogen fuel cell powered trains following the completion of successful trials in 2017. These zero-emission trains built by the French train maker Alstom run on just steam and condensed water and are now operating on a 60 odd smile stretch of line in northern Germany. With their introduction Alstom say that these trains are now ready for serial production which will start a move towards replacing the existing diesel electric locomotives and the air pollution associated with them. Alstom has said it plans to deliver another 14 of the hydrogen zero-emissions trains to Germany by 2021.

While these hydrogen trains are more expensive to buy than a diesel electric train, the technology is more eco-friendly and they are cheaper to run. This is surely the beginning of a new rail transport era that will hopefully start to address the current issues of polluting linked with diesel electric trains and the need to replace many of them with electric trains or emission-free hydrogen trains. Hydrogen trains are equipped with fuel cells that produce electricity through a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, a process that leaves steam and water as the only emissions with excess energy being stored in ion lithium batteries on board the train. Obviously avoiding the use of fossil fuels, producing zero carbon dioxide emissions also offers some distinct benefits over rechargeable battery technology as well.

Once fuelled, hydrogen trains can run for about 500 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, similar to the range of existing diesel trains and capable of speeds up to nearly 90 mph, carrying say 300 passengers. This technology is a greener, quieter alternative to diesel on non-electrified railway lines, such as the Edinburgh South Suburban Railway (ESSR) – an attractive prospect no doubt to many European cities, such as Edinburgh trying to move quickly to combat air pollution and with no real success to date.

Coincidently, the Scotrail Alliance (ScotRail, Network Rail and Abellio) have confirmed that at the present time there are no immediate plans to take forward the electrification of the ESSR in the next rail control period between 2019 and 2024. They have also said they were in favour of re-opening the ESSR to passenger traffic, notwithstanding a qualification that tram-trains would be used instead of heavy rail. The reason behind that qualification was to allow the line to connect with the trams at Haymarket, and then travel along Princes Street which would necessitate further tram work east of Princes Street in order to avoid Waverley – that suggests running an on-road tram line to Meadowbank or beyond via Regent Road, Montrose Terrace, London Road and possibly Portobello Road to rejoin the main / suburban line. Alternatively, the ELRCL has suggested in the website header “The ELR in 2018” at “Where are we now?”, amongst other things, a tram line extension from the proposed York Place / Leith / Newhaven tram route extension at the London Road roundabout along London Road to Abbeyhill and Meadowbank. This would be much more practical solution than further tram work east of Princes Street in order to avoid Waverley and in terms of a passenger catchment area, much more scope.

I think the prospect or the case for hydrogen trains operating on the ESSR is a strong one as these trains are ideally suited for short stretches of the network that have not been converted to electric rails, which would have to happen if tram-trains were to be introduced – surely a potential new lease of life for the ESSR if hydrogen trains were to become a reality. See also the ELRCL website header on “Reopening the ESSR in 2019” for background information.

The Department for Transport has confirmed that it is also scaling back rail electrification plans which means that there will be a greater demand for non-electric trains, including alternatives to diesel.

Nevertheless, numerous challenges with hydrogen trains still need to be addressed. An important question remains about the viability of hydrogen-powered trains in the freight and long haul passenger sector. Freight rail transport and the current issues of polluting associated with all diesel electric trains is the real challenge that has yet to be confronted. It is not fully clear whether hydrogen trains will be able to provide the pulling power for moving heavy goods and long haul high capacity passenger trains along the length and breadth of the country. So, having already demonstrated its suitability for local passenger transport, innovators are now rightly shifting their focus to developing hydrogen fuel technology for heavy freight and long haul high capacity passenger services.

Indeed, to help cut pollution and promote cleaner fuels, the UK government has recently introduced plans to phase out the use of diesel trains by 2040. Rail experts are in no doubt that the decision to phase out these units and use alternative power will revolutionise rail transport. Whilst this deadline may seem some time away, the industry knows that it needs to start planning now because the lifespan of many existing diesel trains will expire long before 2040.

There are obviously some obstacles to overcome, especially in the UK market. These mainly relate to the production of hydrogen and the refuelling infrastructure needed to support the hydrogen trains on the rail network. Under the guidance of The Hydrogen Council, which is a global initiative of leading energy, transport and industry companies working together, who have committed substantial investment to tackle these issues and have a joint vision and long term objective for hydrogen to further advance this energy evolution.

As mentioned earlier, hydrogen fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. While the oxygen needed for the fuel cell can be drawn from the environment, hydrogen fuel must be brought onboard. This is produced using a process known as electrolysis, which in itself is inefficient and energy-intensive. Traditionally, electrolysis plants were powered by electricity generated through fossil fuel combustion, however, there is a global drive to improve the efficiency of the electrolysis process and produce hydrogen more sustainably. For example, there are now hydrogen production plants which run completely off solar or wind power – meaning that the hydrogen being produced is classified as zero-carbon fuel – Scotland would therefore be well placed for such an initiative with tidal power most likely to be substituted for solar, along with wind power.

Surely Scotland could establish an adequate source of hydrogen from the fairly centrally located  Grangemouth refinery to allow this technology to be taken forward.  At Grangemouth, Ineos is building a £350m energy plant (a new steam and power plant) to improve energy efficiency and long-term reliability. Perhaps an opportunity to consider establishing a hydrogen fuel plant there as well because in the near future, as the supply and demand for hydrogen increases substantially, Ineos would be in a very favourable position to meet that requirement.  Interestingly enough, as stated earlier, these new hydrogen trains are ideally suited for short stretches of the network that have not been converted to electric rails and the ESSR falls nicely into that category. Obviously a hydrogen train can traverse sections of already electrified line with no impediments.

For the moment, it seems that hydrogen fuel cells hold the key to powering the trains of the future. In the interim period the challenge is to make diesels cleaner, possibly by extra filtration especially when operating in urban areas. These existing diesels, of which there are about 3,000 freight trains alone in the UK are much more powerful machines with high range capacities and means that they are well suited for use on the rail network. However, the challenge as with all emerging technologies, is that a way will have to be found to develop much more powerful eco friendly trains for the future.

Countries other than Germany are also looking into hydrogen trains, including the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Italy, and Canada and in France; the government has already said it wants the first hydrogen train to be on the rails by 2022. In the UK Alstom wants to test its hydrogen powered trains in the Liverpool area and is in talks about running a trial in late-2019 or early-2020.

Surely the ESSR and some associated lines could be a candidate for such a trial providing we have an adequate rail engineering skills base, local technology base and hydrogen provider nearby.

Difficult to contemplate a nearly silent train that glides along its tracks emitting nothing more toxic than water and about 60% less noisy than a traditional diesel train. This technology is greener, quieter alternative to diesel on non-electrified railway lines and surely an attractive prospect to a city like Edinburgh investigating ways to combat air pollution and reducing car usage at the same time.