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The hydrogen train: a viable solution for the greening of rail transport

Benoît Simian, Deputy of Gironde

In September 2018, the first two hydrogen trains in the world were commissioned in the Hamburg region of Germany. These trains emit no pollutants, have a range of 1,000 kilometers, and can travel at a maximum speed of 140 km/h. In a context of a diesel phase out at the European scale, these zero emission trains could be instrumental in the evolution of rail transport towards decarbonization. In France, hydrogen-powered trains are due to appear on the network by 2022, replacing old diesel rolling stock. Benoît Simian, MP for the Gironde region of France and author of a parliamentary report on the greening of the train fleet, talked to us about the future of the French hydrogen train and its role in the ecological transition.

In November 2018, you submitted a report on the hydrogen train to Élisabeth Borne, then Minister for Transport: why is the greening of rail transport a major issue in France?

First of all, it is worth remembering that rail transport is already one of the least polluting modes of transport in France. More than 80% of rail trips are made by electric powered trains, representing less than 1% of greenhouse gas emissions. Diesel trains are used for the remaining 20%, some of which operate in urban areas. We cannot expect citizens to stop driving diesel cars, while at the same time allowing highly polluting trains to continue operating. The environmental issues raised in this sector are too important to ignore, hence the government’s intention to replace existing rolling stock with green technology as soon as possible. For this purpose, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe asked me to produce a report on the greening of the rail fleet. As a former railway worker, such a task was particularly close to my heart. 

Benoît Simian, Deputy of Gironde, France

Why did you choose to work on hydrogen? 

"The greening of rail transport costs four times less than the renovation of existing infrastructure."

Hydrogen is a credible alternative fuel, both environmentally and financially. Firstly, we know that this solution works because two Alstrom hydrogen trains have been operating successfully in Lower Saxony since September 2018. They have a range of between 600 and 1,000 kilometers and operate with a fuel cell that converts hydrogen from storage tanks and oxygen from ambient air into electricity to power an engine. Another reason for choosing hydrogen is economic sustainability. The previous government pledged major investment into the electrification or regeneration of railway lines through the relaunch of the state-region planning contracts between 2015 and 2020. For example, regeneration of the overhead power lines that supply trains on the Bordeaux - Soulac-sur-Mer line costs 45 million euros. The same amount of money could buy four hydrogen trains. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the greening of rail transport costs four times less than the renovation of existing infrastructure.

How is the deployment of hydrogen trains envisaged in France?

"The hydrogen train serves the region and the region serves the train."

The hydrogen train serves the region and the region serves the train. It provides a solution for the future of our small railway lines for which electrification or regeneration would not be economically viable. This energy also has real potential for heavy freight transport and long distances while electric trains, in contrast, are more suited to urban areas and short distances. Designing tomorrow’s rail network is therefore about moving towards an energy mix that combines the advantages of electricity and hydrogen. With this in mind, we are working with SNCF on an electric/hydrogen hybrid train project. It will be a world first. We expect it to be in operation in 2022, after approval by the European Union Agency for Railways, which is responsible for verifying conformity with rail safety regulations in other member countries.

Benoît Simian in front of hydrogen train

What is the role of the State and the European Union in accelerating the adoption of the hydrogen solution?

"Political will alone is not enough and it is vital that local actors take ownership of the issue."

The State must have a facilitating role, both financially and legally. The Hydrogen Plan, which was presented to the sector’s main actors by Nicolas Hulot in June 2018, sets out a 100 million euro investment into the deployment of hydrogen in industry, mobility and energy. There are other programs on the European scale, such as the Juncker Plan, which aims to boost investment in European Union countries, even though there is not yet a shared strategy on hydrogen and fuel cells. However, political will alone is not enough and it is vital that local actors take ownership of the issue. In France, some regions have already applied for a shared order of 15 electric/hydrogen hybrid trains. The Occitanie, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and the Grand Est regions are among the first to adopt a positive stance regarding this mobility solution.

What other levers can be activated to promote the development of hydrogen mobility?

Hydrogen mobility is already a reality in France but its dissemination will have to be correlated with a national plan, supported by public policies, for the deployment of hydrogen filling stations. In this respect, we have supported the authorization to legislate on hydrogen by decree, which has been adopted under the Energy and Climate Act, and which is definitely a step forward. To address the fact that hydrogen requires a very high initial investment,​​ the sharing of filling stations between different modes of transport has been proposed, such as hydrogen buses, private or service vehicles, boats, etc. In Paris, for example, the Hype taxi company owns a fleet of one hundred hydrogen cars that are charged in four stations in the Paris metropolitan area. With the establishment of a larger network, this model could be replicated in all major cities where the reduction of polluting emissions is a major issue. The proliferation of hydrogen filling stations will also give car manufacturers an opportunity to increase hydrogen vehicle production, which should enable their retail price, which is still prohibitively expensive, to decrease. 

How will hydrogen fuel for future trains be sourced?

As in Germany, French hydrogen trains will run on hydrogen produced from fossil fuels. The objective is to recover this resource and to valorize it as a fuel for rail transport. However, the ultimate aim is to switch to completely clean hydrogen, obtained from the electrolysis of water using renewably generated electricity.

What obstacles could hinder the development of hydrogen mobility?

Hydrogen has been talked about as a solution for over a hundred years, but it has yet to take precedence over other forms of mobility, such as battery electric, gasoline or diesel cars. To the general public, hydrogen is often regarded as something of a pipedream, even though the technology to produce, store and use it is quite mature. Above all, we need to change how hydrogen is perceived, which requires awareness raising, popularization and education. How? By clearly explaining at conferences and seminars throughout the territory that we are no longer at the experimental stage for this solution, but that we know it works well.

At such meetings it is of course important to address the question of safety. The fear that hydrogen is dangerous still exists among the public, even though the composite materials used to design storage tanks are extremely shock resistant. The approval procedure for hydrogen trains also attests to compliance with the highest safety standards.

However, changing people’s minds can only be accomplished by moving towards a positive ecological incentive model, rather than a punitive one. Society has strong ecological expectations. These expectations can be met by public authorities, for example by setting up financial incentive schemes and reallocating revenue generated by the transport sector to finance zero emissions mobility. It’s certainly true that all this will take time, but we are talking about an ecological transition, not an overnight sea change, with a carbon neutrality goal for France of 2050.