Could A Hydrogen-Powered Train Make Your Commute Smoother, Quieter, and Better For The Environment?

By James O Malley on at

If trains are going to become any more environmentally friendly, like cars they need to beat their addiction to fossil fuels. In theory, this should be relatively easy: Trains travel on tracks, and the technology to power them by overhead rails has existed for decades (all you’d need to do is bolt a source of renewable energy on the end). In practice, however, it is much trickier as all that infrastructure is expensive.

Last month Alstom completed the first successful test of a train powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cells at its test track near Salzgitter, Germany. The company claims that the Coradia iLint, as it is called, will also make travel quieter and smoother than a traditional diesel-powered train too - which could mean a more pleasant commute to work for you.

To find out more we caught up with Customer Director Jens Sprotte to find out more about the new type of train.

The Engineering

So the first question is obvious: How exactly does it work? Jens says the train is “unique” because it combines both a fuel cell and a battery system - “it’s a full hybrid train”, he says. Unused power from the fuel cells - and energy recovered from braking - is fed back into batteries on board the train, giving it a bit more juice and making it more energy efficient.
What’s also cool is the iLint’s energy management system. The train is equipped with GPS and because it knows exactly what is coming up ahead, it is able to intelligently provided the exact right amount of energy it needs at any given moment. This means less energy wasted - and conceivably also means that trains could become more reliable as it will modify the train’s movement to match the timetable.

I asked what was the biggest surprise from the test run - but annoyingly for me, Jens claims that everything ran smoothly, and there were no surprises, and the train was able to run at 80km/h as it was designed. This is apparently because the train is built out of tried and tested components - they’ve just never been used together in a train before.

At the time we spoke - a couple of weeks ago now - the prototype train was now in Velim, near Prague. This is a biggest test track and will enable the company to test the train up to 140km/h and carry out acceleration and braking tests which are required by government if the train is ever to see real passenger service.

Getting Down To Business

With any new technology, inventing it is only half the battle: An equally important problem is whether it is economically viable. And this is definitely something that Alstom has been thinking about.

With the Hydrogen train, it is aiming at regional commuter rail - bringing people in from the suburbs. Jens cites that in Germany it costs €750,000-€1m for every kilometer of traffic that’s electrified - so hydrogen might become a more economical solution.

This could be wise positioning too - in the UK, for instance, most long distance rail lines are already electrified - or “catenary” to use railway terminology, and it is the shorter, regional services that are still on the to-do list.

There is just one problem, however, and that is however useful hydrogen might be, we don’t yet have any hydrogen infrastructure. If trains are to run on hydrogen, they will have to get it from somewhere. And this creates a chicken and egg problem: The infrastructure won’t get built if there isn’t the trains to use it, and the trains won’t get used if there isn’t the infrastructure to support it. But Jens is confident this can be overcome, and the company is already finding partners to supply fuel. In fact, as part of Alstom’s pitch to customers, it is saying that it will look after infrastructure and maintenance too - so conceivably any railway that takes on the iLint shouldn’t have to worry too much.

The Timeline

So the iLint sounds pretty cool - and if hydrogen can be proven in trains, perhaps the environment will breath a sigh of relief. But how long will it be before a sleek, silent iLint pulls up in St Albans ready to smoothly whisk you into the centre of London?

“The first steps right now, and the biggest step right now is Velim”, says Jens, referring to the Czech test track. After this, the train then needs to be approved by the German rail regulator, the EBA - which should be done by the end of the year. After this, two iLints will make their way to the north of Germany to be tested on real passengers.

But what about Britain? Nothing, it appears, is concrete yet. The company is “actively looking for opportunities”. Jens says that at the moment Germany is the focus, but he also speculates that these cool new trains could be hitting Britain by 2021. So perhaps one day in the future you could be using your new Samsung Galaxy S11 connected over 5G, as you commute to work on an iLint?