Which future for hydrogen-propelled trains?

02/08/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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Hydrogen(photo Birmingham University)

For several years now, hydrogen seems to have become the miracle fuel to counter the pollution generated by diesel propulsion. If at first it was talked about for the automobile, hydrogen is now used in the railway sector.

The use of hydrogen energy as a solution to global energy and environmental problems was proposed by scientists 30 years ago. The combustion of hydrogen only produces water, which basically does not cause pollution.

In fact, the first “fuel cell” which combined water and hydrogen to produce electricity, were discovered in the early 1800s. Since the second half of the 20th Century, it has been heavily used in space exploration programmes as a rocket propellant. But why this craze only now to hydrogen?

Three elements came into play. On the one hand, In the last few years, as the reality of the climate crisis finally began to wet the brows of policymakers around the world, renewable hydrogen broke through as a high-potential energy solution for sectors that are difficult to decarbonise – like heavy transport and industrial manufacturing. It should be added that technological progress has also made the manufacture of hydrogen cheaper. Then there are interventions of States through the European Commission strategy, which means public funds to start up this new sector, and this is bound to be of interest to the industry. Then, at the railway level, the idea of no longer having to electrify railway lines that do not have very heavy traffic could also appeal. The strategy is to show that rail can be a key element in helping States to achieve their climate objectives. And this is obviously of interest to politicians, who could more easily turn on the subsidy tap.

The big question was which transport sectors should be prioritized for hydrogen deployment? Aviation and shipping have both been identified as suitable contenders, but the almost complete lack of development or prototypes means progress will be for long-term. Heavy road transport, steelmaking and other industrial processes offer better possibilities for a larger scale application. What is remarkable is that the train was once again forgotten in the scientific world! What is remarkable is that the train was once again almost forgotten in this new sector!

Fortunately hydrogen is first of all a high potential energy source for what’s called heavy industry. At the moment, it is rather aimed at buses, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and trains. A railway application was therefore entirely appropriate.

A study on the use of fuel cells and hydrogen in the railway environment assessing the state of the art, the business case and the market potential was undertaken in 2019 by Shif2Rail (and Roland Berger). “Various regions in Europe have shown interest in the potential of fuel cell and hydrogen technologies for trains, in particular where other electrification alternatives to reach the zero-emission objectives have proven unfeasible from a technical and also an economical point of view”, says Bart Biebuyck, Executive Director of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU). Carlo Borghini, Executive Director of S2R JU commented: “The analysis finds that the global FCH train market development activities are currently concentrated in Europe. This is encouraging as it puts Europe at the forefront of FCH train technology, which constitutes a significant potential for the European FCH industry. The rail system transformation initiated with the establishment of the Shift2Rail Programme, driven by sustainability, digitalization and automation, creates new market opportunities for the competitiveness of the rail industry globally”.

Therefore, there is so much excitement around this theme in the railway sector. Alstom in Germany was the first manufacturer to embark on this adventure with its hydrogen-powered Coradia i-Lint… and the indispensable subsidies from the German government. Alstom did so while the two other competitors, Bombardier and Siemens, were rather engaged in a race for battery-powered railcars. Since then, we have seen hydrogen trains being tested all over Europe, and not just at Alstom.

The world’s first hydrogen train was launche in Germany on 2018, September 17. It was a motorail from Alstom’ family Coradia Lint, called ‘Coradia i-Lint’, hydrogen-powered and put into operation on the line Cuxhaven-Buxtehude, Low Saxony. These trains must serve a traffic volume of approximately 2 million rail passengers a year. This train made a big impression and sent Alstom to the forefront of the scene, thanks above all to its bet on a sector largely supported by the public authorities. An eighteen-month test phase for the first two trains was successfully completed at the end of February. In September 2020 in Bremervoerde, works have started to built the world’s first hydrogen filling station for passenger trains. The mobility project, which has attracted worldwide attention, is now entering its next phase. Taking advantage of subsidies and in order to maintain its lead in this promising market, in May 2019 Alstom signed an order for 27 Coradia iLint hydrogen-powered Coradia iLint in 54-metre version for Hesse (Frankfurt).

Germany wants to become the world leader in hydrogen technology and wants to promote industrial production to achieve this. To this end, the German government has decided on a « National Hydrogen Strategy » with a budget of 9 billion euros, which of course does not only destined to trains.

In Great-Britain, a demonstrator called ‘HydroFLEX’ has been converted in 2019 from a Class 319 electric multiple unit, in a partnership between leasing rolling stock company Porterbrook and the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE). In addition to being fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell, this Class 319001 retains its ability to draw power from either the 750V DC third-rail or 25kV overhead wires. It was the first time that a full-sized hydrogen-powered train has yet run in the UK. The application of hydrogen technology on an existing train would eventually allow it to run on conventional electrified routes as well as independently. This results in a highly flexible train that can operate on different parts of Britain’s rail network.

The trigger for this project was the demand from UK Rail Minister Jo Johnson, which challenged in 2018 the rail industry to develop decarbonization plans, with the objective of removing diesel-only trains from the network by 2040. Without indicate with which technology. It is amusing to see that this is an initiative of a rolling stock lessor, but obviously with funds allocated to the University of Birmingham, which shows here again the interest of public-private partnerships.

Hydrogène

Other European countries have followed suit to become part of the European strategy… and obtain funding. In September 2020, Talgo has presented in Badajoz, in Spain, its hydrogen-based propulsion system for rail vehicles, as a green alternative to replace diesel locomotives. The project was presented within the framework of the first Hydrogen Conference as a vector of socioeconomic development in the Iberian Southwest (SOI H2). It will be the first prototype in Spain. In October 2020, the Dutch province of Groningen announced hat it intends to replace DMUs currently operated by Arriva Nederland with hydrogen trains. Here also State fundings are preponderant and the province is now involved in the development of a major new hydrogen plant at Eemshaven and therefore has an interest in promoting this ‘new oil’ for trains and buses.

On 26 November 2020, ItalianI operator FNM and Alstom signed a €160 millions contract for the supply of 6 hydrogen full cell trains to be operated on the line Brescia-Iseo-Edolo. The new trains should be delivered by 2023 and will replace ageing Fiat Class ALn 668 diesels railcars. The Coradia Stream trains for FNM are manufactured by Alstom in Italy. Project development, most of the manufacturing and certification are performed at Alstom’s site in Savigliano. The on-board signaling systems are delivered by the Bologna site.

Hydrogen

This great craze for hydrogen, however, raises certain questions related to production gives doubts about its ability to replace the costly electrification of railway lines and is even finds opposition by radical environmental groups.

It was to be expected that the arrival of this new fuel would be perceived as competition by the electricity sector, which is itself lobbying hard towards elected officials to present electricity sector as a solution to the climate challenge. Despite its many « green » statements, the oil sector is not enthusiastic either, and a whole range of opinions are now arriving in the public arena in an attempt to counter the virtues of hydrogen.

Production of hydrogen can happen in several ways, some of which results in significant greenhouse gas emissions, which quickly drew criticism. The key important factor of hydrogen production is the hydrogen economy. Hydrogen production technologies are commercially available, while some of these technologies are still under development. Hydrogen generation is often associated with different colors like grey, blue, or green. These different colors represent distinctions in the emissions profiles for the different hydrogen production pathways.

  • Grey hydrogen – Use of fossil fuels for hydrogen production. Natural gas reforming is the widely used process for the production of hydrogen, but this results in a considerable amount of CO2 Various industries are dependent on this process for the generation of cost-effective hydrogen.
  • Blue hydrogen – Hydrogen produced from fossil fuels and use of carbon-capture technology to reduce CO2 emissions
  • Green hydrogen – Hydrogen produced via electrolysis which uses electricity generated by renewables and other technologies. Several plants with more than 100MW plant size have been announced for green hydrogen production using electrolyze technologies. Alkaline and PEM electrolyze technologies are widely used technologies. Developments are also taking place in high-temperature electrolyze processes.

The biggest challenge to green hydrogen is that it requires vast amounts of renewable power. The IEA estimates that meeting today’s hydrogen demand through water electrolysis would require 3,600 TWh a year, or more than the EU’s entire annual electricity production. One of the biggest questions is whether enough green hydrogen can be ready fast enough to make a difference to climate change. The green hydrogen economy needs tailored support. “EU policy is trying to repeat the success story of renewables,” says at magazine ‘Nature’ Emmanouil Kakaras, head of new business at Mitsubishi Power Europe. Few believe that private cars will run on hydrogen in future. They are widely expected to go electric. Instead, trucks (and trains?) are the battleground. The question of production is a crucial issue that remains outside the railway industry. In Lower Saxony, Alstom was able to count on the investment of several million euros of public funds in a production plant, otherwise the Coradia i-Lint would have only been a simple power point…

HydrogenGantries out of Cholsey Station (photo Bill Nicholls via license geograph.org.uk)

The goal of no-electrification of railway lines is another bone of contention. It divides the community of railway workers, especially those who spend their entire careers in « catenaries » and substations. Each one is obviously arguing for his own sector… and his job! Avoiding spoiling the landscape with catenary poles every 60m is obviously a dream, but it is far too early today to have the necessary hindsight, when the experiments in Lower Saxony are not yet two years old. Making a comparative assessment between catenary and hydrogen is not on the agenda. The catenary has proved its worth up to 350km/h but it can sometimes be fragile and sensitive to the weather. It has the disadvantage of producing a ton of safety procedures and equipment related to the risks of lightning, backflow and maintenance, which are not found on non-electrified lines.

Hydrogen

The weight of the equipment to be installed on railcars also raises legitimate questions. These hydrogen railcars are for the time being heavy, and are not called upon to climb strong ramps in central Germany or the Auvergne. The respective power-to-weight ratios of these trains are 5.7 and 10.5kW per tonne. This can raise the question of rail and axle wear, in other words additional maintenance costs if the railcar has to be returned to the workshop more times than a « normal » railcar. Sharp observers point out that the first hydrogen trains all ran in « flat regions ». Indeed, Lower Saxony and the Netherlands are neighbours and have a lot in common…

We will dwell less on the last point: the ideological opponents of hydrogen. Indeed, for them, this new fuel would only be promoted to pursue industrial and financial objectives, incompatible with their anti-capitalist ideology. If we underline this in this article, it’s because it’s necessary to always read certain opinions by distinguishing what’s behind them. In some radical groups, the climate cause would only be a screen to promote other less avowable causes, which totally call into question our society… and therefore the railway. It must be cautious…

The battle between electric batteries and hydrogen propulsion is raging. The renewable aspects of hydrogen fuel production make it appealing versus the finite supplies of electric-vehicle battery elements such as lithium, cobalt and nickel, that are only found in poor countries and what gives rise to other political oppositions. Battery recycling, following second-life use application, is also limited, with the world’s largest electric vehicles manufacturer, China-based BYD, reporting a 40 to 60% recovery rate for cobalt alone with the rest resulting in highly toxic sludge.

Will hydrogen have the same success as the renewable energies launched twenty years ago? Hydrogen offers great potential for less busy routes but electrification is potentially the best option for intensively used railways lines and offers many other benefits.  Let’s wait and see…

Hydrogen(photo Mediarail.be)

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