Trains fueled by hydrogen are being put into service for the first time on a local line in Germany. On more peaceful lines where electrification is too costly, hydrogen trains could provide a zero-emissions alternative.
A local train line close to Hamburg will begin operating completely with hydrogen-powered trains, employing a fleet of 14 made by French manufacturer Alstom.
Lower Saxony’s state premier, Stephan Weil, attended a ceremony in the town of Bremervörde on Wednesday to open the all-hydrogen line.
In 2018, the new train was first put through its commercial paces on the line connecting Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde, and Buxtehude. Since then, several hydrogen locomotives have been making the journey over the 100-kilometre (about 60-mile) route, albeit they have been operating in tandem with diesel-powered trains, which still make up the bulk of the railway’s traffic.
Weil remarked, in a play on the English-language slogan “Made in Germany” which is enormously popular in German politics and business, “This initiative is establishing a global example, it is an amazing example for a successful transition that is ‘Made in Lower Saxony. We have reached a major benchmark in our progress toward carbon neutrality in the transportation sector as a renewable energy state.
Alstom, the project’s creators, claims that it will prevent more than 4,000 tonnes of annual CO2 emissions.
“We own 126 diesel-powered trains, which we utilise on several lines in Lower Saxony,” said Carmen Schwable, a spokesperson for the LNVG local public transport authority. “In an effort to reduce our carbon footprint and slow the effects of climate change, we have decided to stop purchasing diesel trains. Like you, we believe that diesel trains will eventually become unprofitable.”
French Engineering and German Manufacturing
The €93 million ($92.5 million) project entailed developing the Coradia iLint trains in the southern French town of Tarbes and building them in Salzgitter in central Germany. It should be noted that the “Institute for Concept Vehicles” at the German DLR space agency also made significant contributions to the study.
Alstom’s project manager, Stefan Schrank, hailed the innovation as a “world first” and said that passengers may now use the line at any time of day owing to hydrogen. The majority of train trips in Germany are powered by diesel, but researchers are hopeful that hydrogen trains will give a zero-emissions alternative.
Eventually, Schrank estimated that in Germany alone “between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains could be replaced by hydrogen models.”
Alstom trains have been put to use all over Europe, including the Czech Republic, and innovative public transportation systems that use hydrogen are getting more and more attention. At last year’s COP21 climate summit in Glasgow, UK, two short-distance hydrogen trains were on display. Hydrogen-powered streetcars or trams have been tested in a number of nations, including Russia and China.
There is interest from other businesses, too. Siemens, a German engineering conglomerate, ran its first hydrogen train prototype this year and plans to go into full production in 2024.
Why Not Just Make the Line Electric?
Electric propulsion is being adapted for most of Europe and Germany’s major rail lines. However, the high expenses of electrification are not always justified, especially on less-used local lines. If infrastructure like tunnels or bridges needs to be modified to allow for clearance, these costs can skyrocket. Both a third line and overhead wires are needed to electrify rail lines, however, third lines are less prevalent in rural areas.
About half of the regional trains in Europe still use diesel power.
Hydrogen is a viable, time-saving alternative to traditional electrical power sources.
The fuel cell on board the Coradia iLint trains takes hydrogen and oxygen from the air and produces electricity. Developers promote it as zero-emissions because the only byproducts are water vapour and heat at the point of power generation.
When compared to a battery-powered car or a train that is wired into the national energy grid, the system has certain similarities to an internal combustion engine. In contrast to batteries, which typically rely on chemical energy stored within them, it continuously consumes hydrogen and air to make the power and requires recharging with hydrogen when empty.
Toyota, the first business to have commercial success with partly electric mobility with its hybrid Prius, has shifted the focus of its e-mobility research to hydrogen-powered vehicles. One advantage is that, unlike with battery-powered vehicles, hydrogen can be refilled at a pump. This is analogous to the current arrangement with petroleum.
The first hydrogen refuelling station for trains is being opened by Linde, a partner business that is a global pioneer in producing hydrogen refuelling stations for road vehicles. The designers claim the trains can go up to 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) on a single charge and can be refuelled in as little as 15 minutes.
Recently returned from Canada, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his deputy Robert Habeck, who also serves as minister for economy and environment protection, signed a new deal on future imports of green hydrogen.
Hydrogen, however, is not without its flaws. Even though it makes up the vast majority of the Earth’s surface, hydrogen is rarely found in its pure form, but rather combined with other elements, most notably oxygen to produce water.
The process of purifying hydrogen gas still involves a lot of money and energy. And burning fossil fuels is still the most cost-effective option right now. However, the price of using renewable energy to extract hydrogen has been decreasing rapidly, and the rising price of fossil fuels may soon make this option more competitive.
However, this means that in the next years, the rail and public transportation sectors will face competition from heavy industry, the automobile sector, and others eager to tap into the emerging power source.