Meet the company with a plan to green the UK’s train fleet

October 10, 2018

Alstom launched the world’s first hydrogen powered passenger train in Germany last month, and it has a plan to bring green trains to the UK.

Passengers boarding the Coradia iLint train running between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude, small towns in the bucolic German region of lower Saxony, may not know they are making history.

There are a few clues for the eagle-eyed: the train, developed by European engineering giant Alstom, is liveried in bright blue, and inside the carriages it is eerily quiet without the rumble of the diesel engine.

But even if they are unaware of the significance of their journey, passengers on the Coradia iLint are nevertheless pioneers in the green train movement, as some of the first people to board the world’s first commercial passenger train running purely on hydrogen.

The train – actually there are two trains, now in commercial service in Lower Saxony – are the result of a four-year partnership with the local regional government to replace part of the existing diesel fleet servicing the area. They are each equipped with on-board fuel cells to turn hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, emitting only water vapour as a result.

With a range of 1,000km, they can run for the whole day, and overnight refuelling takes place at a mobile filling station next to Bremervörde station, using hydrogen produced in part with renewable power.

It’s just the start of a wider rollout in the area. Alstom is scheduled to deliver 14 more trains, and a permanent refilling depot, in Lower Saxony by 2021. And it’s just the beginning of what the train builder hopes will be nothing short of a hydrogen revolution in the world of train travel.

With less than 50 per cent of the rail network electrified and a similar reliance on diesel trains to service its smaller ‘feeder’ routes, the UK is the next country in Alstom’s crosshairs. The policy conditions appear promising – in February the UK government announced an ambition to eliminate diesel powered trains from its network by 2040, but just months earlier ditched plans to electrify swathes of the rail network, citing cost concerns. That controversial decision may mean more pollution in the short term, but it could also open the door for hydrogen.

While electric power is speeding ahead in the car market, for trains it’s a different story. Battery technology is simply not developed enough as yet to deliver trains that can run significant distances without additional power lines to draw electricity from, making electrifying routes a laborious and expensive process. Hybrid trains are one solution, but fitting multiple power trains into a carriage can impact efficiency and limits the climate benefits on offer.

That leaves seemingly only one solution, argues Mike Muldoon, head of business development and marketing at Alstom: hydrogen.

“The UK was never intended to be electrified, even under the most ambitious recent plans,” he says. “And the reason for that is that fundamentally there isn’t a business case to do those electrification projects. You’d be running across some very small railways, around very rural routes and regional railways that wouldn’t justify that level of investment.

“But it’s on those regional routes, with lower traffic levels and slightly smaller trains running slightly slower, that we think hydrogen is the direct replacement for all those diesel chuggers which are out there at the moment.”

Hydrogen offers clear climate benefits to diesel, he stresses, even when using so-called ‘grey hydrogen’ – produced via electrolysis powered by fossil fuels. “Very often in discussions about hydrogen comparisons are drawn with other forms of generation,” Muldoon says. “We’re looking at a comparison to diesel emissions. And in that, even without carbon capture hydrogen offers a significant reduction in the overall carbon footprint of the train. So we can save going on 50 per cent of its carbon emissions using grey hydrogen.”

And then there is the potential for green hydrogen. Advocates of the fuel have long argued that it could play a critical role in an ultra-low carbon energy system, using renewable power generated overnight when there is less demand on the grid to manufacture green hydrogen, effectively providing a highly versatile form of renewable energy storage.

Alstom has wasted no time in making its play for the embryonic UK hydrogen train market. The train giant agreed a partnership with Eversholt Rail in April 2018 to start work on converting an electric Class 321 model of trains to run on hydrogen for the UK network.

However, it’s not a case of simply transferring the new technology from Germany to the UK – British trains run on a smaller gauge, so everything from the fuel cell to the on-board battery has to be re-engineered to fit a smaller space.

It also has to work within the complex world of the UK franchise system. In Lower Saxony, the regional authority buys the trains and franchises the operations of them out to a local operator.

In the UK, the picture is slightly more complex. Companies known as roscos – of which Eversholt is one – own the trains, which are then used by rail operators who have won a franchise to operate a route. “By converting the 321 we will create a new train that will come with a lease price attached,” Muldoon explains. “That lease price will need to be paid by the operator in order to operate the train. So that will need to be modelled as well as infrastructure costs.”

Although the upfront cost of a hydrogen train over a diesel one is higher, the costs can be recouped over the life of the train through savings on running costs, according to Alstom. In Germany, the trains have a payback period of 12 years on diesel, the firm says.

In an effort to develop a franchise offer using a hydrogen train capable of winning a bidding war, Alstom is already in close discussions with train operators to develop a model that works. “It’s potentially quite a difficult market to enter with a higher risk innovative project,” Muldoon says. “We recognise that to offer them a product which doesn’t win them a franchise won’t see this product launched.”

To give hydrogen trains a head start in the UK, Muldoon wants to see the government prioritising hydrogen power when it considers rail franchise bids. “We need to see the introduction of this technology to be a winning factor in future franchises,” he argues. “Not something that is lost in detailed models, but a real challenge to industry to actually bring it forward.”

If it can find an operator which can win a franchise, Alstom is aiming to get the first fleet of hydrogen trains in service in the UK by early 2022. But Muldoon is under no illusions that the UK will completely convert to hydrogen. “It doesn’t replace electrification – even in the wildest dreams of those of us who are supporters of hydrogen are firmly behind mainline and high speed being electrified, because that makes sense,” he admits.

Hydrogen trains may only ever be part of the solution to greening the UK’s train fleet. But with the government under increasing pressure to tackle the country’s rising transport emissions, and budgets too tight for vast electrification projects, it could just be the answer to part of the problem.

Source: Business Green