Alstom

Not all groundbreaking changes are about speed.

When it comes to rail innovations, it’s usually the fastest, longest and most expensive new connections or rolling stock that grab people’s attention. Next year, however, Germany will buck that trend with something that’s both ground-breaking and singularly modest. German rail’s most innovative project for 2017 won’t go especially fast, and you’ve probably never heard of the cities it will link. It will still revolutionize rail travel, quite possibly across the world, with one dramatic change. In December 2017, Germany will launch the first ever passenger rail service powered by hydrogen.

Unveiled by French manufacturers Alstom this month, the new Coradia iLint will feature a motor that gains its power from a hydrogen tank and a fuel cell. Stored in a tank large enough to fuel a 497-mile journey, the hydrogen’s chemical energy will be converted into electricity by the fuel cell, propelling the train at up to 87 miles per hour. Any energy not used immediately is stored in Lithium batteries attached to the car bottom. Producing nothing but steam as a by-product, the motor will run far more quietly and cleanly than a diesel engine. What’s more, the train’s new fuel source will effectively make it carbon-neutral, albeit in a roundabout sort of way.

That’s because the hydrogen it will use is already created as a waste product by the chemical industry, among other manufacturers. Typically, this hydrogen is simply burned, so using it to power trains would not place any new, additional burden on the environment. Admittedly, the production of such chemicals is itself not always carbon-neutral, but given that these substances are already being manufactured, the train project will at least ensure that this process is more productive.

How Alstom’s new hydrogen-powered passenger train works. (Courtesy Alstom)

This new technology would be truly revolutionary were it not for a simple fact: trains powered by conventional electric sources are not inherently dirty. Their environmental impact essentially depends on how the electricity they generate is used. It’s thus arguably more important to focus on green energy generation, rather than changes to the actual trains themselves.

Still, that’s only the case for railway lines that are already electrified. Across the world many are not, and currently rely on far more heavily polluting diesel engines. Electrifying minor routes with low passenger numbers might not always be cost effective, and with rail in competition with other modes it can be hard to make the argument for investment.

This new hydrogen train is thus perfect for shorter, quieter stretches of the network that electrification hasn’t yet reached. Germany’s first Coradia iLint models are thus being tried out first on an internationally obscure 60-mile link between Buxtehude, a city lying just beyond Hamburg’s southern suburbs, and the small port and beach town of Cuxhaven. Outside this region, three other German states signed letters of intent in 2014 expressing a serious interest in adopting the model, and so the trains could soon be a fixture across many of Germany’s smaller lines.

Also helping with orders is the fact that the new train isn’t an entirely unknown quantity. Beyond the hydrogen tank and fuel cell, the train’s design is no different from a successful Alstom train already in service that can transport 150 sitting and 300 standing. Meanwhile, some existing small light rail systems already run on hydrogen power and fuel cells. The tiny Oranjestad Streetcar on the Caribbean island of Aruba started running in winter 2012, while the larger Dubai Trolley began partial service last year. Neither of these, however, are on anything like the scale of Germany’s new train.

The as yet un-clarified issue is costs. Alstom has stated that the running costs will be broadly similar to those for diesel trains, but as yet no price per unit has been offered. The cost of the package, which will include the creation of hydrogen-loading equipment at railway terminuses, must evidently be considerably lower than electrifying a line, even if it may in the end exceed that for a diesel train. In countries forced to make tough choices to slash their carbon emissions, buying the system may still ultimately seem like a no-brainer.

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