It’s getting really serious with hydrogen trains now

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Last Thursday, the first hydrogen passenger train rolled out of the Siemens Mobility factory. 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 major rolling stock manufacturers, such as France’s Alstom, Switzerland’s Stadler, Spain’s CAF and Germany’s Siemens. Like car brands, truck manufacturers and city bus manufacturers, these manufacturers are also exploring alternative forms of propulsion in their quest for sustainability. This is why today there are battery electric trains and hydrogen trains.

Unnecessary effort, one might think. After all, most trains are already electric. They “just” get their power from overhead cables, right? That’s true, but there are still parts of the track that don’t have overhead wires.

According to rail operator ProRail, 15% of the Dutch rail network does not have such a power supply. This is equivalent to 572 kilometers of track. Diesel trains run on these routes. It is estimated that there are around 100 in the Netherlands. In countries like Germany and France, this means tens of thousands of kilometers and at least fifteen thousand diesel trains are still in circulation across Europe.

Parts of our track do not have overhead wires.

Installing overhead cables is expensive

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

ProRail does not dare an amount on request, because too many different factors have an influence. Either way, it’s probably best to use battery electric trains or hydrogen trains. So more and more players are stepping up with it.

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

The competition is even more advanced. For example, Alstom has already carried out road tests in the province of Groningen in 2020, where they also want to start driving hydrogen trains from 2024. The manufacturer Stadler is at least ready and CAF also wants to carry out road tests This year.

Compared to its competitors, Siemens is relatively “late” with its hydrogen train.

The hydrogen train is a sustainable alternative

Especially the regional lines often still have to do without catenaries. Admittedly, in large countries like Germany and France, people quickly talk about long distances. “In this case, a hydrogen train could be a future-proof alternative to diesel trains,” says Rico Luman, senior transport, logistics and automotive economist at ING Research.

“Battery-powered trains are not an immediate option,” says Luman, “due to limited range and recharging facilities. will continue to produce shows.”

As an illustration, the aforementioned Mireo Plus train from Siemens is also available with a battery pack and an electric drive. This battery-electric train travels 80 to 120 kilometres, the hydrogen version of the Mireo Plus between 600 and 1,000 kilometres. This makes this latest version much more versatile.

Hydrogen trains should particularly excel on relatively long regional lines.

Hydrogen is stored in mobile storage units

To do this, 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 fill up with hydrogen. That is why Siemens is working with Deutsche Bahn (DB) as part of the H2goesRail process across the entire hydrogen chain, from production to refueling.

DB wishes to generate so-called green hydrogen by electrolysis from green electricity. The hydrogen is then stored in compressed form in a mobile storage unit with a capacity of 800 kilos of hydrogen. Like transport tanks, these are constructed as a container, so in theory they can be moved relatively easily to where the hydrogen is needed. According to Siemens and DB, filling a hydrogen train is now as fast as a diesel train.

Long term solution

It’s a smart idea, but it also exposes a few downsides that still stick with hydrogen. Some of the energy is lost during compression. You can also transport hydrogen in liquid form, but you will lose about a quarter of the energy cooling it to the required 252 degrees below zero. Pipelines are ideal for this, but building them costs time and money.

“We 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. Using 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 specifies that the investments in the trains are part of the long term, certainly over twenty years. “In the long term, much more green electricity will be available for the production of green hydrogen and it is expected to become significantly cheaper.

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