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Hydrogen Revolution Comes To California Railways, Eventually, Maybe

The fuel cell EV trend has been slow to catch on, but a new hydrogen train destined for California gives H2 fans something to cheer about.

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Zero emission hydrogen-powered locomotives are edging onto the tracks in Europe and Asia, and now California is getting into the act. The Golden State has just called dibs on the the first ever hydrogen train in the US. Of course, a single fuel cell train won’t knock diesel off the tracks, but it can’t hurt, either. If all goes according to plan, the new train will help spark the next generation of low carbon mass transit and railway shipping alternatives on these shores.

hydrogen train

The San Bernardino Transportation Authority is in line to get the first ever hydrogen train in the US (Image credit: GOSBTCA).

One New Hydrogen Train For California

The new “FLIRT H2” train will be built by the Swiss-based firm Stadler for the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority. It is destined for a new rail service called the Arrow, a nine-mile connector currently under construction. When completed, the Arrow will link Redlands to the San Bernardino Transit Center.

The Arrow is scheduled to start operation in 2022. The FLIRT contract calls for the new hydrogen train delivered to be delivered by 2024. If everyone is happy with the first one, San Bernardino County has the option to buy four more.

The new locomotive will mark the return of electric rail transportation to Redlands for the first time since 1937, when the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley system went out of service.

Meanwhile, the plan is for the Arrow to use trains equipped with a relatively recent development in locomotive technology called Diesel Multiple Units. Some jurisdictions have been a bit leery of adopting DMUs, but according to San Bernardino, DMUs are “smaller, quieter, more efficient, and cheaper to operate than standard locomotive haul coaches.”

Batteries Are Pushing Out Diesel, Too

The hydrogen train ball is rolling elsewhere in the world. For example, the French company Alstom is already sending H2 trains to Germany. It has also been talking to the UK (such as it is) about bringing electric fuel cell trains to parts of England where rail electrification would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

As with the Arrow project, the idea would be to put H2 trains on diesel tracks instead of building new electric infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Stadler and other rail stakeholders are also busy replacing diesel engines with battery powered trains. Stadler’s battery version of the FLIRT model, for example, is set to replace 55 diesel trains in the north German coastal state of Schleswig-Holstein.

The Gas Fly In The Hydrogen Ointment

California’s new Stadler train is good news for hydrogen fans, but the bigger question for hydrogen fuel cell technology is a supply chain issue, namely, where is the hydrogen coming from?

Currently, natural gas is the primary source of hydrogen for fuel cells. That opens a gigantic can of worms in terms of methane emissions related to the natural gas supply chain. It’s worth noting, though, that the grid mix for charging EVs still includes a hefty amount of natural gas and coal, too.

The good news for battery EV owners is that is access to 100% renewable electricity has been growing. Fuel cell stakeholders are looking at a similar scenario for hydrogen, though there is a long way to go before renewable H2 can catch up.

As it happens, California is not leaving anything to chance. While pushing the market for fuel cell vehicles, the state also has a renewable H2 requirement built into its hydrogen fuel cell policy.

The US Department of Energy is also a big fan of renewable hydrogen, though during the agency’s “H2@Rail” workshop last spring a number of challenges came up for fuel cell trains, including the lack of a fueling infrastructure.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to San Bernardino for its insights on the renewable hydrogen and fueling issues, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image (cropped): FLIRT H2 train via San Bernardino County Transportation Authority.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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