Germany: beeps from the world’s first hydrogen train fleet

Germany: beeps from the world's first hydrogen train fleet

A hydrogen train manufactured by Alstom, on September 16, 2018 in Bremervoerde, Germany (AFP/Patrik STOLLARZ)

Germany on Wednesday inaugurates a fully hydrogen-powered rail line, a “world first” and a major step forward for rail decarbonisation, despite supply challenges posed by this innovative technology.

A fleet of fourteen trains, supplied by the French Alstom to the region of Lower Saxony (north), will replace the current diesel locomotives on the hundred kilometers of the line that connects the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehud, not far from Hamburg.

“Whatever the time of day, passengers will travel on this route thanks to hydrogen,” Stefan Schrank, Alstom project manager, summarizes for AFP, hailing a “world first.”

Hydrogen trains are a privileged way to reduce CO2 emissions and replace diesel, which still supplies 20% of trips in Germany.

They mix the hydrogen on board with the oxygen present in the ambient air, thanks to a fuel cell installed on the roof. This produces the electricity needed to pull the train.

– Orders –

Testing a hydrogen train made by Alstom, in Bremervoerde, Germany, on September 16, 2018 (AFP/Patrik STOLLARZ)

Testing a hydrogen train made by Alstom, in Bremervoerde, Germany, on September 16, 2018 (AFP/Patrik STOLLARZ)

Designed in France, in Tarbes (south), and assembled in Salzgitter (center) in Germany, Alstom’s trains, named Coradia iLint, are pioneers in the field.

Since 2018, commercial tests have been carried out on this line with the regular circulation of two hydrogen trains. The entire fleet is now adopting this technology.

The French group has signed four contracts for several dozen trains, in Germany, France and Italy, and does not see demand weaken.

In Germany alone, “between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains could be replaced by hydrogen,” estimates Mr Schrank.

“By 2035, around 15 to 20% of the European regional market could run on hydrogen,” Alexandre Charpentier, railway expert at Roland Berger, confirms to AFP.

Hydrogen trains are particularly relevant for small regional lines, where the cost of a transition to electricity is too high compared to the profitability of the link.

Currently, around one in two regional trains in Europe runs on diesel.

Alstom’s competitors have also entered the race. Germany’s Siemens unveiled a prototype train with Deutsche Bahn last May, with a view to commissioning from 2024.

But, despite these attractive prospects, “there are real barriers,” says the expert.

Because trains are not the only ones thirsty for hydrogen. The entire transport sector, road or air, but also heavy industry, in particular the steel and chemical industries, rely on this technology to reduce their CO2 emissions.

– Resource still scarce –

An Alstom-designed hydrogen train undergoes tests in Bremervoerde, Germany, on September 16, 2018 (AFP/Patrik STOLLARZ)

An Alstom-designed hydrogen train undergoes tests in Bremervoerde, Germany, on September 16, 2018 (AFP/Patrik STOLLARZ)

Although Germany announced in 2020 an ambitious plan of 7,000 million euros to become a leader in hydrogen technologies in a decade, infrastructures are still lacking in the country – as in all of Europe – either for production or transport, and require colossal investments. .

“For this reason, we do not see a 100% replacement of diesel trains with hydrogen,” according to Mr. Charpentier.

Furthermore, hydrogen is not necessarily carbon-free: experts consider that only “green hydrogen”, produced with renewable energies, is sustainable.

There are other manufacturing methods, much more common, but which emit greenhouse gases because they are made from fossil fuels.

Proof that the resource is missing: the Lower Saxony line should initially use hydrogen as a by-product of certain industries, such as chemicals.

According to the French research institute IFP, specialized in energy issues, hydrogen currently “derives 95% from the transformation of fossil fuels, almost half of which from natural gas.”

However, Europe is already facing tensions over Russian natural gas supplies, in the context of a standoff with Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

“Political decisions will have to prioritize which sector hydrogen production will or will not go to,” Charpentier said.

Germany will also have to import massively to meet its needs. Partnerships have recently been signed with India and Morocco, and a deal to import hydrogen from Canada was on the menu during Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz’s visit to that country this week.

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