Hydrogen Trains: history speaks both for a failure and a success

As a world-first, Germany has decided to use a Hydrogen powered train on one of its regional lines. The Minister of Transportation for Lower Saxony declared that the technology has the potential to be a critical piece in the countries strive to go towards renewable energy (“Energiewende”), partly because it is technically electricity powered and because for example excess wind energy could be used to produce Hydrogen. The technology works by combusting oxygen and hydrogen together to create water vapour and no other by-product. It is presented by the French company Alstom, and claims a range of 800 km, making it viable for regional routes. A revolution in the transportation industry.

Although it could be taken as the start of a hydrogen revolution, some historical context has to be considered which speaks against the future success of such ventures. In 2014 Toyota unveiled the Mirai; a hydrogen fuelled car. It worked on the same principal, as the train, namely the mixing of hydrogen and oxygen, producing water vapour and energy. However, the sales of hydrogen powered have been abysmal, mostly due to the unconventional technology and the limited infrastructure. Only 700 were scheduled to be produced in 2015.

There is however a glimmer of hope for the hydrogenification of trains in history, namely the switch from coal to diesel and electricity in railway travel. Nowadays, roughly 60% of the train traffic is electrified, meaning that the remaining 40% is powered by diesel. Before the 1900’s it was almost entirely coal. It could be argued that hydrogen comes in where it is not yet feasible to electrify the tracks, thereby replacing diesel trains.

The advantage of the rail companies in adopting the hydrogen trains is that they run on a pre-set schedule and can therefore create a fixed infrastructure for refuelling. The most common cause of failure for new technologies in transportation seems to be the refuelling/range issue. Furthermore, besides the change in the refuelling stops, little modifications would have to be made to the tracks itself reducing capital expenditure for the change. As trains do not have the option to travel a large distance outside of their schedule, it could potentially be viable to hydrogenify the large proportion of railway travel currently being serviced by diesel vehicles. The only thing that would have to be adapted is the refuelling stations, which would have to be switched from diesel to hydrogen.

The future for hydrogen trains looks bright and I for one look forward to seeing how businesses and governments capitalise on this revolutionary technology.

By Tim Knickmann

(image from the railway gazette)

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