June 25, 2022
Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough?
Techs & Telecoms

Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough?

Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough

Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough,

Last Thursday, the first hydrogen passenger train rolled out of the Siemens Mobility plant. This makes the German manufacturer the next major player to take a step into the world of hydrogen trains.

The rail sector has a number of important manufacturers of so-called rolling stock, such as the French Alstom, Stadler from Switzerland, CAF from Spain and the German Siemens. Just like car brands, truck builders and manufacturers of city buses, these manufacturers are also looking for alternative forms of drive in their sustainability efforts. That is why there are now battery-electric trains and hydrogen trains.

Wasted effort, you might think. After all, the majority of the trains are already electric. Don’t they ‘just’ get their power from the overhead line? That is true, but there are still parts of the track that do not have overhead lines.

According to rail manager ProRail, 15 percent of the Dutch rail network does not have such a power supply. That amounts to 572 kilometers of track. Diesel trains run on these routes. It is estimated that there are around a hundred in the Netherlands. In countries such as Germany and France, tens of thousands of kilometers are involved and at least fifteen thousand diesel trains are still in use Europe-wide.

Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough
Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough? 5

Installing overhead lines is expensive

From an environmental point of view, Brussels, the railway companies and manufacturers want to get rid of diesel trains. An obvious option is to electrify more pieces of track. However, that process is time-consuming and very costly; estimates range from 500,000 euros per kilometer to 1.5 million euros per kilometer.

When asked, ProRail does not venture into an amount, because there are too many different factors that influence it. Either way, it’s probably better to deploy battery-electric trains or hydrogen trains. More and more players are making progress with that.

The Mireo Plus H, as the Siemens hydrogen train is called, will start running test runs in the federal states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg from 2023. From 2024, hydrogen trains will actually be included in the timetable on two routes.

The competition is even further along. In 2020, Alstom already ran test runs in the province of Groningen, where they also want to run hydrogen trains from 2024. Manufacturer Stadler is at least as far and CAF also wants to carry out test drives this year.

Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough?

Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough
Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough? 6

Hydrogen train is a future-proof alternative

It is mainly the regional lines that often have to do without overhead lines. Especially in large countries such as Germany and France, you quickly talk about large distances. “In that case, a hydrogen train can be a future-proof alternative to diesel trains,” says Rico Luman, senior economist transport, logistics & automotive at ING Research.

“Battery trains are not directly an option,” says Luman, “due to the limited driving range and charging facilities. Driving on biodiesel would be possible, but is not a really sustainable solution, because the trains still have emissions.”

To illustrate, the aforementioned Mireo Plus train from Siemens is also available with battery pack and electric drive. This battery-electric train comes 80 to 120 kilometers away, the hydrogen version of the Mireo Plus between 600 and 1,000 kilometers. That makes the latest version a lot more versatile.

Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough
Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough? 7

Hydrogen is stored in mobile storage units

For that, the hydrogen supply must be in order. One of the reasons why you see few hydrogen cars on the road, for example, is the lack of filling stations where you can refuel hydrogen. That is why Siemens is working with Deutsche Bahn (DB) as part of the H2goesRail process on an entire hydrogen chain, from production to refuelling.

Through electrolysis by using green electricity, DB wants to generate so-called green hydrogen. The hydrogen is then stored compressed in a mobile storage unit that accounts for 800 kilos of hydrogen. Just like the tank units for transport, these are built in the form of a container, so that in theory they are relatively easy to move to the place where hydrogen is needed. According to Siemens and DB, refilling a hydrogen train is now just as fast as a diesel train.

Long-term solution

That is cleverly conceived, but it also exposes a few disadvantages that still stick to hydrogen. When compressing, some of the energy is lost. You can also transport hydrogen in liquid form, but you lose about a quarter of the energy to cool to the required 252 degrees below zero. Pipelines are ideal in this respect, but their construction costs time and money.

“We do know that hydrogen is still a relatively expensive solution,” says Luman. “Working with a fuel cell is much less efficient than trains that run directly on electricity. The use of green hydrogen for transport is not the most optimal when you look at energy consumption, but in this case there are no other alternatives.”
He also points out that investments in trains are for the long term, certainly for twenty years. “In the long term, there will be much more green electricity available for the production of green hydrogen and then that is expected to be significantly cheaper.”

Is the hydrogen train experiencing its final breakthrough?

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