Transforming rail travel with hydrogen

The future of rail is looking to hydrogen fuel cells to replace emissions intensive diesel engines, laying a pathway for carbon free trains…

by Michelle Leslie
12 February 2020
4 min read
by Michelle Leslie
12 February 2020
4 min read

It’s an important move forward in cleaning the transportation system. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are continuing to increase across the globe. And Canada is no different. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada “In 2015, the transportation sector was the second largest source of GHG emissions, accounting for 24% of total national emissions.” In order to meet emissions targets cuts to carbon must happen quickly.
Ontario’s population is forecast to grow by over 30 percent by 2041. To address transit emissions and increasing demands from a growing population, the Province of Ontario has committed billions of dollars to enhance the rail system. Upgrading transportation through rail electrification, the province will invest over 20 billion dollars into the Go Transit rail network. This regional rapid transit transformation means that a new hydrogen future could soon be pulling into Canada’s largest province.
One of the low-carbon solutions that the province is pursuing is the concept of hydrogen-powered trains. In late November, hundreds of people, including academics and industry representatives, packed the floor of the Design Exchange in downtown Toronto to discuss the benefits of hydrogen fuel cells in transportation. The event, put on by Metrolinx, the Ontario agency that is responsible for roads and public transportation across the province. The rail lines that connect the Greater Toronto Area serve close to 70 million customers every year.

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“The goal of our Hydrogen Symposium in November and subsequent hydrogen feasibility study is to determine whether it is technologically feasible and economically beneficial to use hydrogen fuel cell powered trains on the GO Transit Rail network, as an alternative approach for electric propulsion,” stated Vanessa Barrasa, Spokesperson and Senior Advisor with Metrolinx. “Recent advances in the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power electric trains in other jurisdictions make it important to consider this clean electric technology.”
Looking to transform rail transportation, the province has undertaken a feasibility study to determine if hydrogen cells would be able to power the transit network of tomorrow. Unlike diesel fuel, which produces over 22 pounds of CO2 for each gallon of diesel burned, hydrogen fuel cells are greenhouse gas free. In fact, hydrogen fuel cells only by-product is water vapor.

“We (Metrolinx) are committed to delivering electrified trains on the GO rail network as promised. In delivering these solutions it is critical for us to understand where technology and innovation is leading,” stated Barrasa.

How does it work?

Under the right conditions when hydrogen and oxygen come together electricity is created. In a fuel cell hydrogen molecules are pressurized and stored inside a large tank. When the hydrogen gas encounters a catalyst, the gas becomes ionized, splitting the atoms. When oxygen is introduced the positively charged hydrogen atoms race to connect with them and the energy creates electricity which can then power an electric motor.
This clean alternative to rail travel isn’t just picking up steam in Ontario. A future of hydrogen powered rail is a vision shared with Canada’s most western province. Ballard Corporation in Vancouver recently announced a joint venture with Siemens to develop fuel cells for the next generation of train travel. These emissions free light rail modes of transportation are slated to commence in 2021.
Removing carbon from transportation is also making waves overseas. In Germany, leftover hydrogen from the chemical industry will fuel the first ever hydrogen powered passenger train. The Coradia iLint successfully completed its first test run late last year and is expected to welcome passengers aboard this new hydrogen fleet within the next three years. In addition to using current hydrogen supplies, the country is looking at creating additional hydrogen from wind power. The Netherlands is also jumping on board; their hydrogen powered trains are set to roll out in 2018.
Powering a cleaner future, hydrogen trains provide further opportunities to decarbonize industrial transportation as well. In Canada, home of one of the largest rail networks in the world, over 300 million metric tons of cargo relies on rail as the main method of transportation, providing tremendous potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a carbon-free rail system. Metrolinx will release its hydrogen feasibility study in early Spring.

The author: Michelle Leslie

Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.