Hydrogen Trains: Is a Reshaping of the Future of European Rail on the Horizon?

Hydrogen train

The push to decarbonise rail transportation in Europe isn’t merely a technological challenge – it’s a debate with political, economic and ecological implications. A groundbreaking hydrogen-fuel-cell passenger train, a first for Europe, is gaining momentum in Germany. In the not-too-distant future, these trains could be crisscrossing the continent. For some, these trains signify a greener future for rail; for others, they represent a potential distraction from wider, more impactful change.

Europe's Decarbonisation Drive

As Europe strives to slash transportation emissions (a significant contributor to the continent’s carbon footprint), much attention has been focused on electric vehicles and a modal shift to public transportation systems. However, achieving ambitious climate goals, such as the European Green Deal’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050, requires decarbonising rail travel as well.

At the forefront of this debate is the best way to make railways emission-free. Policymakers are weighing the merits of hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, and extensive overhead wire electrification. Europe’s commitment to decarbonisation could disrupt the current dynamics of the rail sector, potentially reshaping how freight and passenger systems operate.

Germany Leads the Hydrogen Charge

Germany has emerged as a frontrunner in hydrogen train technology. Since 2018, Alstom’s Coradia iLint hydrogen trains have been in operation in Lower Saxony. Several other countries, including France and the Netherlands, are exploring or already deploying hydrogen-powered train lines too.

Several studies suggest hydrogen trains offer an advantage over battery-electric counterparts in terms of range and refuelling speed. They are seen as a particularly suitable solution for regional and non-electrified lines where installing overhead wires would be expensive.

The Electrification Argument

Despite hydrogen’s promise, critics point out that “green” hydrogen (produced using renewable energy) faces challenges in scaling up production and achieving efficiency, even though it is a fast-evolving scientific area. Moreover, hydrogen infrastructure for storage and transport needs substantial investment.

Advocates for electrification argue that while a significant upfront cost, overhead wires offer long-term operational benefits and create a strong foundation for a truly transformed, high-speed rail network across Europe, even though existing powerlines have been beset by copper theft problems around Europe without an adequate solution having been implemented yet, which in turn has taken a toll on passenger rail travel.

The Future of European Rail

The future of European rail is uncertain. While modal shifts to rail are favoured by several European policymakers and while rail has attracted significant public investments, will hydrogen fuel cells manage to take centre stage? Could advancements make battery technology the dominant zero-emission option? Or will this spark a long-overdue commitment to large-scale electrification of Europe’s rail network? The choices made in the coming years will have lasting consequences for both the environment and the continent’s transportation landscape.

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Bernard Mallia

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