Hydrogen trains in the UK? ‘Ambitious’ doesn’t even cover it

Hydrogen trains in the UK? ‘Ambitious’ doesn’t even cover it

Hydrogen powered transport has been kicking around for some time now, and in the automotive industry, major players are investing in green technology. But hydrogen-powered trains on the British railways? I’ll believe that when I see it!

This week, details surfaced about a project in the UK called Hydroflex. It was showcased at an event in the West Midlands and is born out of a partnership between rail rolling stock company, Porterbrook, and Birmingham University's Center for Railway Research. The idea is to create zero-emissions hydrogen-powered passenger trains to replace the current line-up of diesel trains that run up and down the country today.

The benefits are obvious. Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, which powers the motor, and water, which is released as vapor. That’s a major improvement on say, a diesel engine which emits carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, all of which are pollutants and major reasons why our planet is dying.

The Hydroflex tester train is aiming to become the first-ever hydrogen-powered train in the UK when it begins testing on the mainline in March 2020. Only two other active services exist in the world, both in Germany. The French train manufacturer behind the trains, Alstom, argues that the rail industry needs to get greener. But is this really the way to go? I’m not so sure.

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The Hydroflex team. / © University of Birmingham

The problem with hydrogen fuel cells

There’s a bit of an arms race going on in the electric mobility industry right now. Two emerging technologies are being developed, and the question as to whether there is room for both to flourish is increasingly being asked. Battery versus hydrogen fuel cell, these are the two green technologies fighting to power us from A to B. But which is Betamax and which is VHS?

The argument goes back and forth. For now, it seems to me that those using lithium-ion batteries are leading race. Companies like Tesla have reached worldwide fame and become status symbols for the wealthy. In Europe, manufacturers like BMW and Volkswagen are pouring cash into this technology, and see it as the future of their products. However, criticisms about how green battery-powered vehicles remain. Concerns over the resources required to make the batteries, and the disposal of those that are dead, continue to linger.

Hydrogen fuel cells, on the other hand, are being backed by fewer major automotive companies, but money is still pouring in. The Hyundai Motor Group is perhaps one of the strongest proponents of hydrogen power, pumping in around $7 billion in research and development already as well as building new factories. The Achilles heel of hydrogen fuel cells is still safety. Just earlier this month, a hydrogen refueling station in Norway exploded putting two people in hospital.

The problem with the British rail network

If we go back to Alstom, the only company to have gotten hydrogen-powered trains up and running, and this idea that getting people to switch from car to train is a key part of making green train travel a reality. I can tell you now, that is not going to be easy in the UK.

IMG 5110 iLint interior A
Inside the Coradia iLint, the world's first passenger train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. / © Alstom

Since the privatization of British Rail in the 1990s, trust in the nation’s rail network has rock-bottomed. The fragmented network is now run, for profit, by different private companies in different regions. It’s the same old story. Fares increase whilst service declines.

A European Railway Performance Index published in 2017 placed Great Britain behind Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Austria, Sweden and France in the performance of its railway systems. Less than 40% of the network was electrified in January 2018 (more than 60% of the network in Poland is, for comparison). In 2015, the UK has around six times fewer km of track dedicated to high-speed travel than Germany, 10 times fewer than France, 15 times fewer than Spain.

Put simple, Brits do not trust the train network. Christian Wolmar, a train historian, told the Financial Times in 2018: “It’s very hard for people to travel around and not suffer from the cracks in the system. It’s everything, from knowing who to buy a ticket from to the signaling failure that delays the train to the lack of information when your train is canceled.”

Coradia iLint 2018
The Alstom Coradia iLint train in Germany. / © Alstom

Then there is the issue of size. The Victorians in England were well-ahead of other parts of Europe then they built the first rail networks, but they built them small. According to Mike Muldoon of Alstom, getting hydrogen tanks that can last a full day on trains small enough to run on the network is a challenge.

So there are big hurdles to get over if we are going to see hydrogen-powered passenger trains running in the UK in the coming years. I hope it happens, but I remain skeptical. To go from the current situation to delivering a fancy new hydrogen-powered train network seems like a bit of leap to me. You should learn to run before you can walk, as they say...

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  • storm Jun 26, 2019 Link to comment

    Its less efficient than electric which would already be available along most rail lines. Not seeing the benefit here.