Season 7 - Hydrogen trains

Episode 1 - Why is it so popular?

For many of us, it's already the end of summer and it's the time to say goodbye to those you only see during the holidays. The friends who live far away and those you met at a drinks party, the impossible loves encountered in a beach bar and the cousins we tell ourselves that we won’t miss. All of this is against a backdrop of the heatwave that’s been crushing Europe, after weeks of rain and cold. If nothing else, it’s giving even more pressing reasons to decarbonise all that we can - starting with transport. If only to save the charm of holiday romances. We do not talk enough about the impact of climate change on romance…

The technology we will be dealing with during this new season of the newsletter isn’t obscure or confidential. On the contrary, it’s already won over many global political and industrial leaders. Huge orders have already been placed and some prototypes are already deployed. Guessed it yet? Yes, bravo - we’re getting stuck into hydrogen-powered trains. “Unlike the hydrogen plane, the technologies are mature, there’s no big technological code to crack, just regulatory hurdles, as proven by the deployment of certain trains, particularly in Germany,” explains Maria Lee, Logistics and Transport expert at Sia Partners. Indeed, well ahead of the game, Germany has launched several Alstom Coradia iLint trains in 2018, all operated on hydrogen. Which, according to a study on the prospects for the hydrogen train in France by Ademe, the French agency for energy transition, presents “the feasibility and maturity of hydrogen technology for rail for the first time.

In France, the SNCF has ordered 12 Régiolis H2 trains for four regions, which are dual-mode electric and hydrogen trains which will be tested in 2024 and put into service in 2025. In Italy, the government has released €300 million to move forward on several similar projects. Around the world, particularly in the Middle East and China, hydrogen train projects are emerging. But why such enthusiasm? Why is this technology unanimous among the leaders of the richest countries on the planet? Is it really “the future of mobility” as the president of Alstom France announced in February 2023 at Loches station, where its 100% hydrogen single-mode was tested in France for the first time.

The hydrogen production sector is not all that ecological, although if that were to change, the answer could be very different. The production of clean hydrogen won’t be viable before 2035. So is it popular because it’s good value for money? Once again, that’s way off - hydrogen trains are extremely expensive at this stage of the sector's development. “Those who buy hydrogen trains today are throwing money away. It’s economically and ecologically counterproductive when there are transitional solutions while waiting for the costs to drop and the sector to be ready,” says Lee. “If Germany, which is very advanced on the subject, does so, it’s because it sees in it an energy of the future and has decided to develop everything around it, as a way of supporting an economy, industry and those who work in it. It’s a form of state subsidy, and a strategic decision. This is why Germany backed this up by creating a sector and a consortium,” says Lee.

In short, despite its success, the hydrogen train is – for the moment – ​​more of an ecological-political bet than a surefire way to decarbonise in a feasible way. Moreover, in Germany specifically, certain regions are already backtracking on the subject, while fleets of slow-speed hydrogen trains are deployed across the country. It’s a blow certainly, but doesn’t mean we should give up on them.

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