Season 7 - Hydrogen trains

Episode 2 - Is it really being abandoned?

Have you ever bought a product that disappointed you? You know, the kind of gadget you see in a sponsored Instagram post which, the second you lay eye on it, becomes the solution to all your problems. For some, it's a backpack with ultra-practical storage spaces to organise your belongings while travelling. For others, it’s a glove for brushing your cat without getting scratched yourself. For others, the perfect product is a computer cleaning kit that can pick up even the smallest speck of dust. For the German state of Lower Saxony, this disappointment is the hydrogen train.

Let’s rewind a little. It’s 2012 and certain public or parapublic railway companies are trying to eliminate what remains of diesel-powered trains in their fleets. For manufacturers making slow hydrogen trains, it’s a golden opportunity, especially as the hydrogen production and distribution sector is almost non-existent. Seduced by the promise of a completely decarbonised future, the LNGV, Lower Saxony’s railway company ordered fourteen trains running on hydrogen fuel cells. It’s an ambitious and innovative choice, and makes the rounds in the specialist and general press. Some years later, in 2018, they’re tested on certain sections of railway tracks, and in the summer of 2022, they officially entered circulation. But as Quartz reported in early August of this year, the government of Lower Saxony already wants to abandon its brand new trains. To be replaced with…electric.

State authorities believe that operating these trains is too expensive, especially in the long term - even though there's been a relatively vague deadline regarding when hydrogen trains would become profitable. In 2022, a study commissioned by the Lander of Baden-Württemberg alleges that 80% of hydrogen trains will be more expensive than their electric counterparts. In short, economists and logisticians are, as is often the case, in disagreement with each other. Either way, it’s clear that the pioneers of the commercial hydrogen train are about to give up on the project, after the LNGV spent €93 million getting it off the ground. That’s no small amount.

For good reason, the hydrogen train is far from avoiding criticism, especially once it’s actually used. First of all, to date, 95% of the hydrogen produced in the world isn’t ecological or sustainable. And, even when it is, we have to be able to transport it and store it where the trains need it. Which demands the development of new infrastructures, which won’t come cheap. For example, more than half of the LNGV budget was spent on the first hydrogen refuelling station in Germany (and the world).

That being said, many other projects are under development all over the world. In June 2023, Alstom even organised a major demonstration of the capabilities of its Coradia iLint (the one scrapped by the Germans) in Canada. As Michael Keroullé, President of Alstom Americas said: “Hydrogen technology offers an alternative to diesel and demonstrates our ability to provide more sustainable mobility solutions to our customers, agencies and operators, as well as passengers.”

It’s no coincidence that so many projects are underway. Just like those sponsored ads on Instagram, lots of world leaders have been wooed by the hydrogen train, believing that it holds real benefits if it can be scaled up. Or that if the technology is deployed sufficiently and in enough places, it will become affordable, and perhaps even profitable. And many see it as ecological - after all, experts estimate that hydrogen will be accessible in large quantities by 2035.

To conclude, this first flop of the hydrogen train doesn’t point to a definitive death. It simply highlights the fact that even when a promise is beautiful, it shouldn’t be embraced without careful research. When it comes to transportation and sustainability, if something is easy and quick, it’s probably a red herring. Changing the face of the world of mobility takes time, patience and reflection - no gadget solves all your problems, whether it's your carbon footprint or brushing your cat.

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