Hydrogen trains could represent the future of railways. They are cleaner, quieter and cheaper to run than diesel trains. One French company is now set to make them mainstream in Britain.
Alstom has announced a deal with rolling stock company Eversholt Rail to convert more than 100 diesel trains to be fuelled by hydrogen.
The trains, which are named Breeze, are set to run on commuter and suburban lines by early 2021 and will be converted at Alstom’s train modernisation facility in Widnes, Cheshire. It will be the first time an existing train fleet has been converted this way anywhere in the world.
Alstom and Eversholt will convert Class 321 trains to run on hydrogen fuel cell technology. The four-carriage trains will be converted to three carriages as part of the process. The trains are expected to hit top speeds of 87 mph and will house hydrogen gas storage tanks at the front and rear third of the train.
The technology involves hydrogen mixing with oxygen produced from the air to produce electricity. The hydrogen is burned while excess energy is stored in a backup lithium-ion battery. No carbon is emitted; the hydrogen trains emit water.
Alstom have already created the Coradia iLint passenger train models, the first passenger train in the world to be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, which debuted in Germany last year. It now operates hydrogen trains in regular passenger service on a daily basis.
The plan is supported by the Department of Transport, who say it will allow train operators to scrap diesel trains without hugely expensive overhead power lines needing to be installed. In Germany, which has traditionally been reliant on diesel engines, 40% of the rail network is not electrified.
Mike Muldoon, Alstom UK & Ireland’s Head of Business Development & Marketing, told The Manufacturer that hydrogen trains should be common on regional routes within the next five years, with first trains appearing in the UK in the next two to three years. He also said that the first full Coradia iLint fleet should be in service by that time.
He said hydrogen was best suited to replacing diesel services especially where electrification is not economically viable or is otherwise undesirable. He added: “Hydrogen and electrification are complementary technologies that between them can deliver network wide decarbonisation together with improved passenger experience.”
Asked if hydrogen trains are cheaper to run than diesel, he responded: “Yes, over their life hydrogen trains are cheaper to run than diesel. This can be expected to become more pronounced as the technology matures, as hydrogen gets cheaper to produce due to increased demand and as diesel becomes more constrained by increased emissions control requirements.”
Aside from the zero emissions, there are many advantages of hydrogen trains. Switchyards and maintenance areas would be much cleaner, because oily emissions would not assemble on tracks and on surrounding lands.
They can also be refuelled rapidly just like diesel engines. A single hydrogen “charge” can power a train for 600 miles, enabling it to last a whole day on an urban route.
On the other hand, hydrogen can be highly flammable and explosive and the initial costs of purchasing a hydrogen train will be somewhat more expensive. Hydrogen trains are also only as green as the source of their battery power. Most hydrogen is generated via natural gas reforming, which emits CO2 as a byproduct.
Hydrogen trains are only set to become more popular though. France expects its first hydrogen trains by 2022 while here in Britain, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling expects hydrogen trains to be a reality by the early 2020s.
The hydrogen trains are green and clean. Whether it will mean fewer delays and miserable morning commutes on Southern Rail is another matter entirely.
Reporting by Harry Wise