Season 7 - Hydrogen trains

Episode 3 - Can we scale it?

As detailed in previous newsletters, the hydrogen train is a little like the romantic partner you met too soon. The one you encountered aged twenty and felt you could spend your life with, but only after plenty of partying, romantic conquests and travelling the world. Because you know full well that if you got together too soon, it wouldn’t work and you’re simply not mature enough to manage something this major. In short, you’ll hit a wall if you fail to be patient.

Of course, if you did meet the love of your life in your early youth, this analogy probably doesn't mean much—so we'll give you a little reminder. The hydrogen-powered train is considered by an audience of decision makers and experts to be the solution to trains of the future. The only problem is that the first public entity to have tested it – the German state of Lower Saxony – is already in the process of backtracking. Their verdict? It’s too expensive to operate. Particularly because of hydrogen supply, as the first refuelling station cost half of the €93 million invested by the German railway company in this project.

However, let’s not be too hasty. Looking at the details of this German hydrogen-gate, it’s clear that the problem isn’t so much due to the technology itself. They did indeed face problems with driver availability and fuel supply, but not with the functioning of the technology, but instead because it’s reached the beginning of its technological maturity. “This is a land mobility technology where most of the technological building blocks are already known and used elsewhere: for example, a fuel cell and a high pressure tank to store hydrogen,” explains Emmanuel Bensadoun, head of the Expertise/Studies division of France Hydrogène, a business association that represents the interests of companies active in the the French hydrogen sector. “There are only a few integration constraints - particularly in terms of vehicle filling - and ecological constraints specific to rail, which separate it from its equivalent in heavy road mobility.” He believes there’s therefore no need for a major technological leap, but just a few adaptations.

Regarding economics, Bensadoun is pragmatic. “Currently, the costs of technologies are extremely high because prices are almost the same as the prototypes, but there’s no indication that it will remain that way,” he explains. “It’s still difficult to accurately estimate when and to what extent prices will fall, because it’s partly based on technological innovations.” Some of them are already known, others less so, or not at all.

Bensadoun points to what happened with the lithium battery technology as they will enable the network of German trains in Lower Saxony to be decarbonised. In the early days, these were extremely expensive, almost prohibitively so. But, gradually, large-scale production made them more accessible, and democratised them. The same goes for heavy road mobility being powered by hydrogen. “Studies have shown that at a certain production rate, there’s a collapse in costs, which can be applied to traditional vehicles,” says Bensadoun. “It's the same for hydrogen trains: there are a lot of uncertainties, but once the technical solution is fixed, the price of green hydrogen is stabilised and the production price is adapted to a commercial application, we’ll be able to truly study the relevance of the hydrogen train in the decarbonisation of the railway.”

Despite largely held belief, major contracts received as pure prophecy and the supposedly cataclysmic U-turns we’re seeing, the use of the hydrogen train remains subject to debate. “In reality, the choice between hydrogen trains and battery trains will depend on the line that we want to decarbonise, with many elements coming into play, which, for example, can be integrated as new equipment in the stations concerned,” says Bensadoun. “Generally speaking, it’s a safe bet that the deployment of this technology on rail and the corresponding railway platforms will be quite modest.” Ergo, hydrogen will only be a secondary solution to decarbonise trains. As we keep coming back to: there’s no single solution for clean mobility. There are specific, local solutions, which can be adapted to very specific contexts. Those who say otherwise have their work cut out to sell that to our leaders.

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