Rolling Stock

Does hydrail have a future?


CRRC introduced China’s first self-developed hydrogen fuel cell hybrid locomotive last month.

Though rolling stock using hydrogen fuel cells is on the table for 20 years,  they could not become widespread yet. Alstom’s hyrdogen multiple set first and now CRRC’s shunting locomotive show that rail might be one of the first areas that this technology becomes widespread.

What is a hydrogen fuel cells?

A hydrogen fuel cell is like electric battery, converting chemical energy into electrical energy. Charged hydrogen ions pass through an electrolyte to recombine with oxygen to produce water, which creates current (namely electricity) and only emitting hot air[1].

The most attractive thing about a hydrogen fuel cell is being a zero-emission power. At least during usage. On the other hand, getting pure hydrogen is not that much clean. Most common method is getting from natural gas, which still causes CO2 and other by-products.

Where to use on rail?

Hydrail is not competing with electric rail, fuel cells are not that much efficent. But when it comes to running rolling stock on non-electrified network, fuel cells have advantages compared to batteries. They promise longer range, faster refueling, more reliable especially in hard wheather conditions. Furthermore, getting rid of used lithium-ion batteries is not a solved problem yet[2].

Hydrogen fuel cells are mainly being researched to become alternative for diesel engines in rail. Fuel cells produces electricity with upto 60% efficiency doubling combustion engine which converts fuel to kinetic energy with 25% efficiency[3]. Another research of Michigan University shows that fuel cells promise 28% reduction in energy consumption, where fuel cell hybrids even promise more (38%)[4]. Fuel cells also have much lower operational costs, about 85% less compared to diesel engines[5]. Though electrification is spreading fast in whole world (72% of China rail network, 61% of Germany and 55% of Russia), rest of China network as well as almost none-electrified USA and Canada rail netwoks are huge markets.

HMUs already on rail

The first commercial hydrogen rolling stock, a multiple unit was unveiled at Innotrans in 2016 by Alstom. The Coradia iLint is the first low floor passenger train worldwide powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, which produces electrical power for the traction, emitting only steam and condensed water.

Coradia iLint. Photo: Alstom

HMU was approved for operation in Germany in 2018 and 2 HMUs have been giving service since then. Coradia iLint has been tested in a couple of European countries since then, 41 more was totally ordered in two tenders. We’ll start to see more HMUs in service starting from next year[6].

First commercial loco

Last month, CRRC introduced hydrogen shunting locomotive, designed to run at a speed of 80 km per hour with a continuous power supply of 700 kW for 24.5 hours. Its maximum traction load on a straight track exceeds 5000 tons[7]. This powerful shunting machine is the strongest one ever produced, which could be counted as the closest step for using this energy in heavy duty locomotives.  

Heavy duty locomotives are expected to be one of the fields that hydogen fuel cells can compete with other energies which is considered to be realized within 5 years based on trend of cost deduction in this technology. By 2030, it’s expected to compete with other low-carbon alternatives in all areas, which is why several governments which account 70% of world economy have long term plans about using hydrogen power[8].

Plans for electrification of whole rail network may be revised in near future.

Cover photo: Xinhuanet


Categories: Rolling Stock

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2 replies »

  1. Hydrail has been slow to take off because (1 )public writers have been obsessed H2 cars bogged down in retail obstacles and (2) change can’t originate inside an industry with 30-year depreciation life. Nonetheless, hydrail costs UD$7 million less/km to construct than 1880s overhead and about US$70,000 les per km per year to maintain. One of the key International Hydrail Conferences was held in Istanbul circa 2010.

    • Bogged down – is an understatement. It’s a pity as technically H2 rail is the logical link to the dawn of steam and based on current technology, we have more sustainable options with hydrogen, – either burn it and generate steam or generate electricity from fuel cells. The problem is not the Diesel engine, but stubborn economists who wont change the way rail is invested in. If employers gave everyone a rail pass and the government quash ridiculous costs charged by constructor consultancy, perhaps things will change.

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