German railroad fully converted to hydrogen


A local rail route in Germany will soon become the first to be fully served by a fleet of hydrogen-powered trains. Hydrogen could be a zero-emission solution for railroads on those lines where electrification is too costly, experts say.

A local railroad line running near Hamburg will begin using hydrogen-powered trains exclusively, using a fleet of 14 machines made by French company Alstom. Recently, in the city of Bremervörde, Lower Saxony state premier Stephan Weil attended a ceremony inaugurating the all-hydrogen train line. According to Alstom, the project will save more than 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

The first commercial test of the new type of train took place on the line between the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude back in 2018. Hydrogen locomotives have since run on the roughly 100-kilometer route, but diesel-powered trains have also run alongside them.

- We have 126 diesel-powered trains that we use on various lines in Lower Saxony. However, we will not be buying any more trains with this type of propulsion. We are convinced that diesel trains will no longer be economically viable in the future," said Carmen Schwable, spokeswoman for the local public transportation authority LNVG.

Coradia iLint

The €93 million project involved designing the Coradia iLint trains in the southern French city of Tarbes and assembling them in Salzgitter, central Germany. The Institute for Concept Vehicles of the German space agency DLR also contributed to the research.

Experts hope that hydrogen trains could provide a zero-emission solution for rail travel on lines that still use diesel fuel, which powers about one-fifth of train trips in Germany. The country still runs between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains, which could be replaced by hydrogen models.

Alstom trains have also been used elsewhere in Europe, such as in the Czech Republic. Two short-haul hydrogen trains were unveiled in Glasgow, UK, last year during the COP21 climate summit. Russia and China are also among those countries that have begun experimenting with hydrogen-powered streetcars. Other companies are also looking at the technology, such as German engineering giant Siemens tested its first hydrogen train prototype this year, hoping to bring it to market in 2024.

Emission-free propulsion

Coradia iLint trains are powered by pure hydrogen. They take oxygen from the surrounding air, and a fuel cell converts it into electricity. The only waste products at the point of power generation are steam and heat, which means the system is emission-free.

In many ways, hydrogen propulsion is more like an internal combustion engine than battery or grid power. It constantly uses hydrogen and air to generate electricity, and refills the tanks with hydrogen when empty, while batteries typically use the chemical energy stored inside.

Toyota - the first company to achieve major commercial success with partially electric mobility with its Prius hybrid - has already switched most of its e-mobility research to hydrogen-powered cars. According to Toyota, one of the perceived benefits is the ability to quickly refill the vehicle with hydrogen at the dispenser, instead of having to recharge the batteries. And Linde, the world's leading manufacturer of hydrogen refueling stations for road vehicles, is opening the first hydrogen refueling point for trains. It takes just 15 minutes here to refill with hydrogen enough to cover about 1,000 kilometers.