Hydrail: Zero-Emission Fuel-Cell Trains for the 21st Century

Featured, Technology  /   /  By Jim Motavalli


“Hydrail is to Diesel as Diesel was to Steam.” That’s the motto of a small but determined band of rail advocates who’s like to see trains—in California and elsewhere—running on zero-emission hydrogen.

They’re holding the 11th Annual International Hydrail Conference next month (July 3 and 4) in Birmingham, England, and this year they have something to celebrate—imminent commercial deployment in two countries, China and Germany.

The basic idea is to power both light and heavy trains with hydrogen instead of diesel or overhead-line electric. Fuel-cell buses have proven quite viable, and hydrail is virtually the same thing on rails—complete with overhead fuel storage tanks. The term “hydrail” was coined in 2003 by Stan Thompson, a former AT&T strategic planner, and he’s been advocating for it since.

“Hydrogen allows intermittent solar and wind to power railways because it’s intrinsically a storage medium,” Thompson said.

According to Jason Hoyle, a technology professor at Appalachian State University and a hydrail advocate, “The idea is picking up a lot of traction, and commercial deployment has been announced. Two companies are working on it in China, and in Germany they’re deploying 40 light-rail units.”

Specifically, the German state of Schleswig-Holstein said it would electrify its entire rail network with hydrail fuel-cell technology by 2025. And Alstom Transport hopes to have those 40 light-rail cars in public service on regional lines by 2020.

According to Thompson, “I always thought that Germany would be the most likely place [for hydrail  to be deployed] because of the country’s commitment to the environment and their reputation for being technological leaders.”

In China, Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, British Columbia is partnered with Qingdao Sifang, a rail car company, and successfully demonstrated a hydrail tram last year. The tram is slow, topping out at 43 mph, but it can be  refueled in three minutes, and carry 380 passengers 62 miles.

Local trams are in short supply in China, and Bloomberg reports that a big commitment is emerging to buy into the technology. Foshan, in southern China’s Guangdong province, is starting to build tram lines this year, and is investing $72 million in a new plant to making the Sifang hydrogen trams.

Hoyle said that diesel-powered light-rail options “are both noisy and polluting. The other option, electrification with overhead lines, is expensive to build and to maintain. With hydrail, you avoid having to build the overhead lines, but you get all the clean benefits of electrification.”

According to Hoyle, a hydrail train’s range would depend on how big a fuel tank it carried, the route it traveled and the terrain it traversed, but all-day operation on one tank of gaseous hydrogen is definitely possible.

Thompson points out that only half of one percent of American rail is currently electrified—and that adding overhead lines costs a prohibitive $10 million per mile. “And battery solutions simply don’t give you enough range,” he said.

What about the U.S.? There’s a long history of technology birthed in the United States (magnetic levitation trains for example) finding actual deployment elsewhere, but could California, with an existing hydrogen infrastructure, make something happen?

Advocate Kevin Kantola points out, “Of all the U. S. states, California has shown the biggest commitment to clean transportation including fuel-cell vehicles. In the Golden State there are fuel-cell cars for sale and lease, fuel-cell buses deployed north and south, plus fuel-cell trucks and delivery vans gracing the roadways. With all of this commitment to hydrogen fuel-cell transportation systems I have to ask where are all of the hydrail [trains] in California?”

Kantola said that hydrail offers California (which has committed $64 billion to high-speed rail) zero emission, cheaper operating costs, reduced maintenance (because there are fewer moving parts) and a proven technology that’s already deployed on trucks, cars and buses.

In 2010, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe hybrid hydrail train visited southern California and met then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared it “very powerful and very clean.” But not much has happened since.

At the 2015 Hydrail Conference, Raphael Isaac and Dr. Lewis Fulton from the University of California, Davis presented a paper called “Rail Technologies: A California Cross-Fuel Comparison, and Discussion of Hydrogen’s Potential Advantages.”

The authors list many advantages to hydrail, and one central drawback: “Freight-rail firms tend to be quite conservative in their investments; only clear evidence of cost savings will get them to seriously consider a switch to hydrogen.”

Hoyle concurs. “One of issues is that this technology is in the very first stages of commercial deployment,” he said. “Once there’s been hydrail trains that are proven in revenue service, there will be a lot of people recommending them. Right now, there’s a lot of perceived risk.”

Deployment, then, takes forward-thinking transit agencies, such are currently found in China and Germany.

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