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The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA) is the trade association for the fuel cell and hydrogen energy industry, and is dedicated to the commercialization of fuel cells and hydrogen energy technologies. Fuel cells and hydrogen energy technologies deliver clean, reliable power to leading edge corporate, academic and public sector users, and FCHEA members are helping to transform our energy future. FCHEA represents the full global supply chain, including universities, government laboratories and agencies, trade associations, fuel cell materials, components and systems manufacturers, hydrogen producers and fuel distributors, utilities and other end users.

Hydrogen-Powered Rail

In Transition

Hydrogen-Powered Rail

Connor Dolan

This is the 4th installment in our In Transition series where we explore the role and benefits of fuel cells and hydrogen energy for sectors in transition to a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.

Regional trains connect passengers between and through rural, suburban, and urban areas.  They are an important cog in an environmentally and socially sustainable public transportation system, connecting commuters to long-distance trains, local commuter trains, or other forms of public transportation. However, regional trains are often powered by diesel engines, providing a major hurdle for countries looking to meet aggressive climate and clean air goals. 

In urban areas, where many trains travel along the same rails and across shorter distances, line electrification has been an effective method of replacing diesel engines. However, regional trains cover longer distances across suburban and rural landscapes. This distance greatly increases the costs of electrifying rails. Without onboard electricity generation, battery-powered trains are unable to provide the necessary range to connect cities and towns across the distances regional trains cover. Hybrid diesel-electric trains have been developed, but these only reduce the dependency on diesel rather than eliminate it. 

In February of this year, the United Kingdom Department for Transport announced plans to phase out diesel-only trains by 2040. Currently, diesel-only trains make up 29 percent of the total fleet. Line electrification is one path towards meeting this goal. However, less than 50 percent of the network is electrified, and recent projects to expand line electrification have been canceled due to high costs. Jo Johnson, the UK’s Transport Minister, identified hydrogen powered trains as a ‘prize’ to realize an affordable and cleaner alternative to diesel. 

Minister Johnson and others in the transportation industry recognize that fuel cells and hydrogen energy provide a solution with the performance of a diesel-powered train, sans any emissions that are harmful to humans, the climate, or the environment.   

Policymakers have communicated their desire to make change, and now is the time for fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies to be implemented.

On September 16, Alstom, a French multinational company operating worldwide in rail transport markets, launched the world's first hydrogen fuel cell-powered train to enter passenger service. The Coradia iLint, which entered commercial passenger service in the German state of Lower Saxony, will run on German railway company EVB's 62-mile Elbe-Weser network, replacing EVB's existing diesel train fleet. The Coradia iLint, built by Alstom in Salzgitter, Germany, is equipped with fuel cells which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, thus eliminating pollutant emissions related to propulsion. The Coradia iLint is powered by FCHEA member Hydrogenics's HyPM fuel cells, under a ten year exclusive agreement signed by the companies in 2015.

According to Alstom, the zero-emissions Coradia iLint can travel at speeds up to 87 miles per hour. The trains are initially being fueled by a mobile station, which pumps gaseous hydrogen into the trains from a 40-foot-high steel container next to the tracks at Bremervörde station. Alstom states that on one full tank of hydrogen, the Coradia iLint can travel 621 miles, allowing the trains to run throughout the Elbe-Weser network all day without refueling.

Alstom also confirmed that it is working with British rolling stock leasing company Eversholt Rail to refit class 321 EMU’s with hydrogen tanks and fuel cells for hydrogen operation in response to the British government’s challenge to eliminate diesel operations on their national rail network by 2040. According to Alstom, each hydrogen powered class 321 train will have a range of 1000km as well as a maximum speed of 140km/h. While Alstom says it plans to convert 100 class 321’s trains in total, the first batch of hydrogen retrofitted 321 class trains could be completed and ready for operation by early 2021.

Alstom has a contract with the Lower Saxony local transport authority to provide 14 fuel cell trains as well as 30 years of maintenance and energy supply beginning in 2021. This will allow rail operators to focus on running their trains, while Alstom carries out the transition to a new, more sustainable regional rail network powered by fuel cells and hydrogen energy. Passenger service is scheduled to begin late this summer for two pilot trains operating in the Elbe-Weser network. 

Footage of the Coradia iLint’s maiden voyage in Lower Saxony, Germany.

While the Coradia iLint is the first fuel cell train for passenger service, hydrogen-powered rail applications have been indevelopment as far back as 2006, when the Railway Technical Research Institute began test runs of what is believed to be the world’s first fuel cell railway vehicle, powered by Nuvera Fuel Cells.

As demonstrated in Germany and soon in the UK, fuel cell technology provides a clean and affordable solution to rail electrification. Another country that could benefit from this game-changing technology is the United States, which lags many developed nations in rail electrification and primarily relies on diesel engines to transport goods and people over long distances.  Hydrogen fuel cells would be an ideal zero-emissions technology for American railways to adopt. We are excited to see the developments coming out of Europe and hope to see them hit the rails in America in the not-too-distant future.