Could hydrogen-powered trains solve the UK’s railway electrification dilemma? UK transportation planners sure hope so. Back in 2012 they had high hopes for electrifying the nation’s entire fleet of diesel trains, until reality intervened. The idea was good in theory but the economic case fell apart recently. Much to the outrage of electrification fans, several big parts of the plan were cancelled within the last few months. Now policy makers are looking to cool things down by approaching electrification from the hydrogen angle.
It’s Not Easy Being Electric
The 2012 UK rail electrification plan really was ambitious. The idea was to spark private investment in the electric locomotive field by demonstrating the government’s commitment to electrification. The original concept included a £4·2bn build a “high-capacity ‘electric spine’ passenger and freight route” from Yorkshire and the West Midlands to Southampton, according to our new friends over at Railway Gazette.
That’s all well and good, but when it came down to costing out the plan, things began to fall apart. By January of this year, the hammer came down from UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. Our other new friends over at Rail Technology Magazine have the rundown:
Transport secretary Chris Grayling told the Commons Transport Committee yesterday that his decision to cancel further electrification on the Midland Main Line north of Kettering came down to the value for money provided by the project.
In a tough afternoon for the secretary, he was grilled on his approach to nationwide electrification after the cancellation of two major plans in August last year, including both the East Midlands work and the Great Western route between Cardiff and Swansea.
Hydrogen To The Rescue
Grayling softened the blow by hinting that converting diesel fleets to cleaner fuels would accomplish the same goal without the need for pricey new overhead lines and other electrification infrastructure.
And, that’s where the French firm Alstom enters the picture. Earlier this week reports began trickling out from across the pond that Alstom would convert a fleet of Class 321 electric trains to hydrogen.
That’s not hydrogen as in rocket fuel, by the way. The hydrogen would be used to power a fuel cell that generates electricity on board.
Last year CleanTechnica took note of the possibility that hydrogen could have a role in rail transportation, so this development is not entirely coming out of the blue.
On the other hand, if you’re wondering if it makes sense to invest in hydrogen retrofits for trains that are already electric, that’s a good question.
Aside from reasons specific to the UK and the Class 321 fleet, a hydrogen conversion could make sense if a fleet is due to be refurbished. In that case you have an opportunity to demonstrate that hydrogen retrofits are an economical upgrade. That would provide financial justification for introducing new hydrogen rail lines, eliminating the expense of new overhead electrification.
Diesel is the fuel powering many of today’s electric trains, so that’s an additional incentive to convert from one electricity to another.
CleanTechnica reached out to Alstom for some additional insight and received this explanation:
Less than 50% of the U.K. rail network is electrified. At the moment the 321s run on that. With the hydrogen conversion they will be independently powered and bring the benefits of electrification to areas of the network that do not have a power supply, replacing diesel trains.
The Wind Energy Angle
Alstom isn’t the only company experimenting with hydrogen trains, but it appears to have an edge on the competition.
Earlier this month the company’s Coradia iLint fuel cell train, which is already undergoing irl testing in Germany, won a 2018 GreenTec Award in the mobility category.
GreenTec bills itself as the “most important environmental award worldwide,” so there’s that.
Here’s the rundown from Alstom:
The Coradia iLint is a completely emission-free regional train that offers an alternative to diesel trains for operation on non-electrified railway lines, which currently make up more than 40 percent of the railway network in Germany. Powered by a fuel cell in which hydrogen is converted into electrical energy, the Coradia iLint only emits steam and water condensate.
So, here’s where it gets interesting. Part of the Coradia iLint business model is that Alstom takes responsibility for the fueling infrastructure, and its partner on that end of the deal is the company The Linde Group.
While the primary source of hydrogen today is natural gas, The Linde Group is on a mission to transition to renewable fuel sourced by “splitting” hydrogen from water.
Germany would be a good place to start. Back in 2015 CleanTechnica took note of the emerging power-to-gas movement, in which excess renewable energy is used for water-splitting, and by 2016 the company Enertrag was already planning to add power-to-gas to its business model.
Enertrag’s hybrid renewable energy power plant leverages wind energy to produce hydrogen. In consideration of the UK’s wind energy resources it seems that Alstom is in a good position to add a renewable hydrogen twist to its Class 321 conversion plans.
We’ve reached out to the company for the latest word on that score, so stay tuned.
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Photo: Coradia iLint hydrogen electric train via Alstom.