Germany : Inside Alstom’s Hydrogen Train

In Lower Saxony, a passenger train with hydrogen drive is on the way. The manufacturer Alstom hopes that the technology will prevail even off the track.

By Inga Rahmsdorf

Two platforms, a siding and a blue steel container. The station of Bremervörde is quite clear. The spectacular is very inconspicuous. On track 2 the regional train 33 arrives. A blue commuter train that runs without overhead power lines. And without diesel drive. The Coradia iLint is according to the manufacturer Alstom world-wide the first passenger train, which is operated with hydrogen. For half a year he has been commuting on a local traffic route through northern Germany, between Buxtehude and Cuxhaven. The blue steel container is the gas station. On the roof of the train are fuel cells that generate energy for its propulsion. From his exhaust comes: only water vapor.

The hydrogen train meets with interest: the new train is constantly being photographed and filmed

Jolt-free and quiet drive the hydrogen train, says train driver Marco Odrian, who sits in the front cab and looks over a wide control panel on the tracks. Otherwise, his work in the new regional train hardly differs from that in one of the diesel railcars. Only that he experiences more freedom in the hydrogen train,as the train is constantly is photographed and filmed. Odrian checks on a screen whether all passengers have boarded, then he puts the brake lever and leaves the station Bremervörde. We continue to Buxtehude. The hydrogen train needs about 45 minutes for this route. Top speed 140 kilometers per hour – as well as a diesel train. But much quieter he rolls through the meadows, forests and wind turbines.

“Diesel has its future behind it, and hydrogen has its future ahead of it,” says Rainer Peters, spokesman for the Lower Austrian State Traffic Organization (LNVG), which is responsible for public transport. The route from Buxtehude to Cuxhaven is one of many in the country where no power lines are laid. 40 percent of the routes in Germany are not electrified. On them drive almost exclusively diesel trains.

Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) announced in January, the electrified share to increase to 70 percent, but the expansion is expensive and is progressing slowly. One kilometer of overhead line costs about one to 1.5 million euros, says Peters. “Battery powered trains are currently more of an alternative to bridging short stretches, as they need to be recharged after 50 to 80 kilometers,” says Peters. The two hydrogen trains, which have been operating in regular operation since September 2018, travel 1,000 kilometers with one tankload.

The hydrogen trains are a pilot project of the LNVG and the track operator, the railways and public transport Elbe-Weser (EVB). The French train manufacturer Alstom has built the two prototypes in its Lower Saxony plant in Salzgitter. And the trains work flawlessly, as everyone involved assures.

“Even better than we expected,” says Stefan Schrank, Alstom’s technical project manager. The technology is reliable, the trains on time. And they arouse so much interest that small towns like Bremervörde have also gained a new attraction with them. Domestic and foreign delegations have arrived just to see the two trains and their gas station. And because the demand is so great, one of the two regional railways drove once in February even across Germany, was demonstrated in Ludwigshafen, in the Black Forest and in Berlin. The tour also showed that hydrogen trains could be used anywhere, says Jens Sprotte, business development manager at Alstom. “The technology is ready for the market.” There is currently no political will and courage in Germany to focus more on hydrogen in mobility.

Engine driver Odrian gets off at the station in Buxtehude and at the end of the train again. After a few minutes stay, it’s back to Bremervörde. There he drives the regional train on a siding and stops directly next to the blue steel container, behind which stands a tank truck with liquid hydrogen. Still, this is a temporary and mobile hydrogen refueling station. A fixed installation is planned, it should go into operation by 2021 at the latest. The LNVG has ordered 14 hydrogen trains from Alstom, which are scheduled to run on this route in two years, for a total of 81 million euros. That’s a bit more than for comparable diesel railcars, Peters says, but in the end economically cheaper. After eight to ten years, the higher initial cost would have paid for itself, according to Alstom. For a service life of at least 25 years.

However, the fact that the new trains only emit water vapor does not automatically mean that they are also environmentally friendly. The decisive factor is how the hydrogen is produced. To get it out of water by electrolysis requires electricity. Only if the fuel is generated completely regeneratively does the hydrogen train really go emission-free.

For the test phase of the two railways, the hydrogen is currently delivered with a tank truck from the Netherlands. He is abundant as a waste product in the chemical industry, says Alstom engineer cabinet. In the future, however, the hydrogen in the new filling station in Bremervörde will be produced from renewable energy. However, one could only gradually increase the green share. Schrank does not want to set exact numbers.

Passenger Odrian hands the Regional bahn 33 on the siding to Christian Wolter, a staff member of Alstom. He refuels each of the two hydrogen trains once a day. Wolter checks the temperature and pressure for readings. The liquid, minus 254 degrees Celsius cold hydrogen is pumped out of the tank truck. Then it is heated with technical equipment in the steel container to then pump it in gaseous form into the tank of the regional railway. Wolter takes a hose and connects it to the filler neck of the train. The process is similar to a car fueling, except that the hose must be hermetically connected. Only then does the gaseous hydrogen flow into the containers on the roof of the regional railway.

Between the tanks on the roof, the fuel cell is installed. “The heart of the train,” as cabinet says. In it comes with the hydrogen and oxygen from the ambient air to a chemical reaction. This creates electricity that drives the electric motor. Not directly required energy is stored in lithium-ion batteries, which are mounted under the regional train. In addition, the kinetic energy from the braking process is converted into electricity and stored. Special software logs every acceleration and braking process and analyzes the data. As a result, the technology of trains can still improve steadily, says cabinet.

And the project is to be extended in Lower Saxony. “We are considering where we can use more hydrogen trains,” says Peters. The LNVG has its own vehicle pool, which includes 126 diesel railcars. After 30 years at the latest they must be replaced. It is also with other states in “promising talks,” adds Alstom manager Sprotte. It’s not just about the rail traffic, but all vehicles, even on the road. He had received requests from companies that want to operate garbage trucks with hydrogen. That was technically possible. Only enough hydrogen filling stations would be missing.

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