Converting trains to be powered by fuel cells

Britain is starting to convert its ageing commuter trains from diesel to hydrogen. Mark Hookham explains in an article in The Sunday Times.


Hydrogen fuel cell trains herald new steam age

Britain’s railways are to enter a new steam age with up to 100 ageing commuter trains poised to be converted to run on eco-friendly hydrogen. They could be on the network within three years and will be almost silent, with the same range and speed as traditional diesel and electric trains.

Their only emissions will be water, with some released as small puffs of steam above the train. The conversion programme — drawn up by Alstom, the French train maker — would make Britain a world leader in hydrogen train technology. Jo Johnson, the rail minister, called in February for all Britain’s 3,900 diesel trains to be scrapped by 2040.

There is growing concern about the impact of diesel emissions at railway stations. The Rail Safety and Standards Board is studying concentrations of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulates at London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley stations. The research includes taking measurements from staff exposed to the worst pollution. Researchers from Birmingham University have found “very high” NO2 and particulate levels at Birmingham New Street.

Alstom revealed this weekend that it planned to convert the class 321 electric trains, which date to 1988 and are used on the Greater Anglia network between London Liverpool Street and Ipswich. The units will be switched to other lines once converted to hydrogen power. If successful, the company hopes the programme could be extended to diesel trains.

Hydrogen tanks installed on the roof will supply fuel cells, which will generate electrical power by combining the hydrogen with oxygen. Lithium-ion batteries will store the electricity and supply the traction units that power the train.

“We have now started work on the development of a specific hydrogen train to launch the technology here in the UK,” Nick Crossfield, Alstom’s managing director in the UK, said. “What we are responding to is the fact that as of 2040 diesel as a fuel for rolling stock is no longer allowed.” He said the trains would be “super quiet, super smooth [and] much more accelerative”. The conversions will take place in fleets of up to 15 trains a time at Alstom’s factory in Widnes, Cheshire, and the first could be ready by 2021. Eventually all 100 class 321 trains could be converted.

The trains could initially be used in the northeast, possibly on the Tees Valley line between Bishop Auckland and Middlesbrough, and in the northwest between Liverpool and Widnes. They will have enough hydrogen to travel 620 miles and reach speeds of about 87mph.

Alstom has also designed a new hydrogen train, called the Coradia iLint, which is being tested in Germany and could be used on a proposed new line between Oxford and Cambridge. Crossfield said the initial capital costs of hydrogen trains were higher than diesel ones but the “total life cost” of running them for 40 years was lower.


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