All Aboard! World’s First Hydrogen-Powered Trains Debut in Germany

Alstom’s Coradia iLint leaves the station, opening a new and greener chapter in railroad history.

By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

“Emission free mobility is one of the most important goals for ensuring a sustainable future, and Alstom has a clear ambition to become the world leader in alternative propulsion systems for rail,” Henri Poupart-Lafarge, chairman and CEO of Alstom, said in a statement. “The world’s first hydrogen train, the Coradia iLint, demonstrates our clear commitment to green mobility combined with state-of-the-art technology.”

1800s WOOD BURNING

Credit: Washington State Digital Archives

1830s COAL BURNING

Credit: Washington State Digital Archives

Decarbonization of transportation, which accounts for approximately one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, has a crucial role in the battle against climate change. Though rail transport accounts for only a fraction of those emissions, there’s still plenty of room for sustainable innovations like hydrogen-based propulsion.

The Coradia iLint is specifically designed to run on non-electrified rail systems, which comprise an estimated 46% of rail routes in Europe. The train uses existing infrastructure in areas where electrification of short-run, regional passenger routes is cost-prohibitive.

The use of hydrogen as a fuel for trains noticeably reduces the burden on the environment, as roughly 2 pounds of hydrogen fuel can generate the same amount of power as 10 pounds of diesel, without air or noise pollution. High-performing, clean, and sustainable, every iLint that retires a diesel locomotive will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of the annual emissions of 400 cars — while improving operator and passenger experience.

Fourteen iLints, five of which are now up and running, will gradually replace the 15 diesel trains currently running on the 75-mile (120-km) route. Owned by Landesnahverkehrsgesellschaft Niedersachsen (LNVG), all 14 trains will be in service by the end of the year, making it the world’s first regional route powered solely by hydrogen.

“We will not buy any more diesel trains, in order to do even more to combat climate change,” Carmen Schwable, a spokesperson for LNVG, told broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “We are also convinced that diesel trains will no longer be economically viable in the future.”

1935+ DIESEL

Credit: Americanrails.com

2022 HYDROGEN FUEL CELL

Credit: Alstom

Clean, quiet, efficient

The iLint moves passengers between the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, and Buxtehude in the Lower Saxony region of northern Germany. With a range of about 620 miles (998 km), it can carry up to 300 passengers at speeds up to 87 mph (140 kph) and run for an entire day without refueling.

Rooftop hydrogen storage tanks fuel the generation of electricity in the train’s Cummins-designed fuel cells, combining oxygen from outside air to create electricity that propels it. Electricity is stored in lithium-ion batteries that drive the train’s steel wheels, and which also recharge from braking traction. Any excess heat generated is recycled and used for the train’s air conditioning system. Flexible energy storage and intelligent energy management during acceleration, coasting, and braking optimize the train’s efficiency — and its only emissions are water vapor and condensation.

At 15 minutes, a hydrogen-powered train refuels in less than half the time it takes for an electric train to recharge, and goes farther than its electric counterpart before refueling is needed. iLint’s propulsion system is modular, making it easy to maintain, and also has scalability potential. Just as Toyota North America’s Project Pilot put fuel cells in diesel truck chassis, diesel trains can be retrofitted to run on hydrogen, eliminating the expense of redesigning from scratch. Given that the average life cycle of a train is 30 years, that’s a big plus.

Ditching the diesel habit

The health risks associated with exposure to diesel exhaust (DE) are well known, but recent research on diesel train pollution’s effects on passengers is startling. “Ultrafine particles are of most concern because they are believed to go deeper into the lungs,” wrote Maria Helena Andersen, lead author of a study1 at the University of Copenhagen. The study found that “ultrafine particle levels inside carriages pulled by diesel engines were five times that found in open air on a busy street in Copenhagen. These particles have been linked to sluggish cognitive development in children and neurocognitive diseases in older adults.”

The study concluded that “exposure to DE inside diesel-powered trains for three  days was associated with reduced lung function and systemic effects in terms of altered heart rate variability compared with electric trains.”

Hydrogen-powered trains eliminate diesel’s particulates, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons. They also greatly reduce noise pollution, which also impacts mental and physical health.

Coradia iLint’s fuel cell is roof-mounted and situated over the train’s middle. Credit: Alstom

Green hydrogen production needs to pick up steam

The iLint was designed by Alstom teams in Salzgitter, Germany, and Tarbes, France. Its development was funded as part of Germany’s National Innovation Programme for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology. In September 2018, there had been a successful trial run of almost two years with two pre-series trains.

But while the iLint is emissions-free in operation, the hydrogen fuel that makes it run is not — at least not yet. The current refueling station is a Linde facility in Bremervörde, Germany, which contains 64, 500-bar high-pressure storage tanks with six hydrogen compressors and two fuel pumps. A hydrogen production site that uses electrolysis to produce hydrogen with renewable wind power is planned, but not yet in service.

The Coradia iLint was nonetheless named recipient of the 2022 German Sustainability Design Award, which recognizes technical and social solutions driving the transformation to sustainable products, production, consumption, or lifestyle in line with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Looking down the tracks

Hydrogen-powered transport is seen by some as expensive, risky, even impractical. But many technologies that have revolutionized the way we live and work, from automobiles to spaceships, were aspirational — and expensive — at the start. The Coradia iLint may be another such beginning, moving us toward the goal of sustainability.

“By 2035, around 15 to 20% of the regional European rail market could run on hydrogen,” according to Alexandre Charpentier, a rail expert at consultancy Roland Berger.

Alstom, which has more orders from the city of Frankfurt, Germany, and from regions of Italy and France, already has competitors nipping at its heels. German technology giant Siemens recently unveiled its prototype hydrogen train, the Mireo Plus H, with national rail company Deutsche Bahn’s project, H2goesRail. Equipped with a mobile refueling station that generates hydrogen from green electricity, it’s scheduled for rollout in 2024. Other early-stage hydrogen fuel cell train projects are underway at companies in California, India, Canada, and the U.K., to name just a few.

For now, Germany is leading the way in turning passenger rail away from fossil fuels, with innovation pushed by a growing environmental lobby and the political will it has generated. “Our goal is clear,” Deutsche Bahn’s CEO, Richard Lutz, Ph.D., said in a September press release. “By 2040, Deutsche Bahn will be climate neutral. Hydrogen is part of the mobility of the future.”

His words ring true. With climate crisis looming, we can’t afford to leave hydrogen sitting at the station.

1. Andersen, M.H.G. et al. (2019). “Exposure to Air Pollution Inside Electric and Diesel-Powered Passenger Trains.” Environmental Science and Technology 53(8): 4579–4587.

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