Hydrogen powered trains could be operating in the UK in as little as “three to four years”, according to Alstom.
The train manufacturer confirmed plans to bring the technology to the UK and announced that it was already working with Eversholt Rail to convert Class 321 electric trains by fitting hydrogen tanks and fuel cells to “upcycle” the trains. The company is currently testing its first hydrogen train, the Coradia iLint, in Germany.
The move is in response to the UK government’s plans to remove diesel rolling stock by 2040. Nearly a third of all the UK’s trains are diesel trains, which will need to be replaced or refurbished to hit the government’s target of no diesel rail vehicles by 2040.
Alstom managing director UK & Ireland Nick Crossfield said: “We think the potential long-term application of hydrogen in the UK is very significant. Less than 50% of the UK network is electrified, and much that isn’t electrified is unlikely ever to be so. Starting with this conversion, we think hydrogen could offer the right zero carbon solution for many parts of the network.”
Trains powered by hydrogen fuel cells have both air quality and noise pollution benefits as they are near-silent and emit no particulates.
Fuel cells on the train produce electricity through a combination of hydrogen and oxygen to create water. Electrical energy is intermediately stored in batteries and the train is powered by an electrical traction drive. The only exhaust is steam and condensed water.
However, not everyone is completely convinced by the scalabilty of hydrogen trains. Despite welcoming the move and saying the introduction of hydrogen trains was a very positive one, Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education senior lecturer in electrical energy systems Stuart Hillmansen said they were “not currently the answer” to electrification.
He said the current fuel cell technology would be useful on tributary lines for trains which cover around 400km to 500km a day, many of which currently use diesel trains.
“Hydrogen can extend the reach of electrification,” said Hillmansen. “It’s not an alternative to electrification - running from Penzance to Aberdeen, say, is not currently achievable.
“Where hydrogen trains fit in is for those services which do 400km to 500km per day and there are quite a few trains which do that and you can refuel the hydrogen. Where it’s not going to be able to replace is for very long distance journeys where the train is doing about 1,000 miles a day. That would be a challenge in storing enough hydrogen storage capacity on the trains.
“It’s not competing with electrification, it’s in partnership with it.”
Hillmansen also said that while the trains themselves would produce no emissions, hydrogen was an energy carrier and still required energy to be produced. However, hydrogen could be produced using sustainable electricity and electrolysis or through industrial processes.
Like what you’ve read? To receive New Civil Engineer’s daily and weekly newsletters click here.