Hydrail Trains: Heavy-Hitters of the Hydrogen Transition

9 September, 2020 | Railroad & Mass Transit
Article bt Stan Thompson, former Chairman, Transportation Infrastructure and Air Quality Committee, Mooresville South Iredell Chamber of Commerce
Since railways were invented in the early 1800s, hydrail has been only the third paradigm shift in traction. Today, about thirty countries have taken steps toward a transition from diesel to wireless electrification using hydrail–hydrogen fuel cell battery hybrid traction. Some fifteen train manufacturers have entered this market. Production in Germany and China began two years ago.

Hydrail trains—initially self-powered rail vehicles rather than locomotive drawn trains—don’t require fixed trackside infrastructure. Hydrail corridors are dramatically less expensive to electrify than those using legacy 1880s overhead catenary power.

At pre-mass-production volumes, hydrail vehicles cost about 225% of externally powered legacy vehicles [1]. But savings from eliminating fixed trackside plant far out-weigh vehicle costs [2].

No one ever realized that catenary will go away, so little hard comparative data is available. Hydrail appears to save about USD$10 million+ per mile in capital cost on average. Much of this gain is in civil engineering, because legacy technology means bridges must be replaced or designed higher to clear car-top pantograph contact gear. Where tunnels are involved, this incremental cost is high.

With hydrail, the cost of a hydrogen filling station somewhere along the line is about $2 million. That’s a lot—until you consider that it equates to only 500 to 1,000 feet of overhead track electrification.

The annual incremental cost-per-mile for catenary runs about US$130,000 on average [3]. When there is no catenary, this cost goes away.

Stan Thompson with Alstom’s hydrail Coradia iLint in Bremervörde, Niedesachsen, Germany, at the first public run (16 September 2018).

The present state-of-the-art is that hydrail is in the energy range with self-powered diesel rail cars. It has not yet been commercially up-scaled to the power equivalent of short-interval, heavy-traffic line electrification. However, for regional line railcars, it is slated to eliminate diesel almost entirely in about fifteen years [4]. Developing high-speed hydrail and line haul freight will take longer.

Pioneers in hydrail innovation have learned many profoundly counterintuitive truths. First, no one is in charge of long-life equipment industry change because fiduciary obligations dictate that return on equity must be protected. Investor-funded plant cannot purposefully be made obsolete, wholesale.

That means change, when it comes, must come from outside. Yet writers view disruption-averse industries as the only sources credible enough to quote.

However, most stakeholders are positively affected: taxpayers, fare-paying riders, new-tech investors, new-tech job seekers, environmentalists, economic development professionals, and people who dislike the visual intrusion of catenary plant half a century after aerial utilities were buried. Today these groups remain unaware that their interests can easily be served by hydrail.

Here’s another counterintuitive fact: until 2013, the focus on cars killed hydrogen mobility.

It’s been at least thirteen years since the US Congress funded the creation of hydrail [5]. The 2008 HH 1205 hydrail locomotive, built by BNSF Railways for the US Department of Defense, is still the largest hydrogen-powered device ever to move on land.

But cars are constrained by the ubiquity paradox. Until there’s a mass market, no ubiquitous fuel and dealer support infrastructure is fungible. Until such an infrastructure exists, neither car dealers nor would-be hydrogen car buyers will invest. Yet H2 cars are widely discussed, while hydrail remains virtually unknown.

Buses, trucks, trains, ferries, planes, marine vessels and the other “non-retail” heavy hydrogen mobility apps now flourishing have their own ad hoc fueling sites and aren’t constrained by the ubiquity paradox. Once their deployment has gained a foothold, the wide fueling infrastructure that then exists will support cars too.

Cars never could have come first. The American west wasn’t won by fleets of steam-powered Conestoga wagons racing out to start homesteads. Robert Fulton didn’t dream of mass-marketing steam outboard motors. Trains and boats had to come first; Stanley Steamers cars came many decades later.

Elon Musk miffs hydrogen car aficionados by scoffing at what he calls “fool cells.” [6] Musk may be alluding to Albert Einstein’s quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For years, pundits have inferred over and over again that some defect in hydrogen technology makes it “not ready for prime time.” The defect is not with H2 but in their own failure to grasp economics. Why “cars first,” anyhow?

Experts said the opposite. Dr. Alistair Miller of Atomic Energy of Canada wrote a 1999 paper explaining why hydrogen trains and ships would come first, followed by buses, trucks and planes… and cars, dead last.

Dr. Miller’s paper launched the International Hydrail Conference [7] which, in 2013, led to the decision by Alstom and Hydrogenics to create Coradia iLint hydrail trains [8]. The general heavy mobility truck-ship-plane avalanche quickly followed.

How could out-of-sequence fuel cell car hype stifle hydrogen heavy mobility for over a decade?

Cars are heavily advertised in the media. Trains, ships, trucks, ferries and airplane technology are not. Writers can sell H2 car stories easily; train stories—not so much.

The takeaway: at a global level, ad-driven editors and producers—not governments, engineers or economists—make some of society’s most far-reaching technology deployment decisions and get them terribly wrong.

A 1962 AB graduate of Pfeiffer University, Stan Thompson joined IEEE when he was a customer equipment engineer with the Bell System in the late 1960s. He moved into planning and addressed more and more strategic areas in Charlotte, New York and Atlanta. He was BellSouth’s futurist for the environment and transportation and retired as Director of Virtual Transportation in 1996.

Stan lives on Lake Norman near Mooresville NC. There, in 2005, with the Mooresville South Iredell Chamber of Commerce Chairman, and Jason W. Hoyle of Appalachian State University, he founded the International Hydrail Conference, which—in Toronto in 2013—linked Hydrogenics (now part of Cummins, Inc.) with Alstom. The Coradia iLint hydrail trains were announced less than two years later and the industry followed. He coined the generic term hydrail in 2003.

Stan has spoken on hydrail in Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, UK and USA.


[1] Telephone call circa 2018 with Mr. Dale Hill, distinguished US transit designer and former CEO of Proterra, Inc.

[2] Presentations and conversations at 14 International Hydrail Conferences from 2005 to 2019.

[3] Telephone conversation circa 2019 with Dr. Andreas Hoffrichter, then head of the Broad School of Railway Management, Michigan State University.

[4] David Briginshaw, “SNCF aims for zero emissions by 2035,” International Railway Journal, 26 June 2019.

[5] Letter from Gary T. Ritter, Director–Technology and Strategy, Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, US Department of Transportation, 6 April 2015.

[6] Blog by Randy McEwen, “Why Elon Musk is Wrong About Fuel Cells,” 16 January 2020.

[7] Dr. Alistair Miller presentation to the First International Hydrail Conference in Charlotte, NC, USA, May 6, 2005.

[8] Mr. Peter Eggleton’s presentation at the Tenth International Hydrail Conference, Mooresville NC, 2015. Mr. Eggleton was a consultant to Hydrogenics at the time of the 13th IHC where the Alstom-Hydrogenics association began.

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