Until recently, fuel cells have been of little importance in rail transport. This spring, however, the company CSR Qingdao Sifang Co., Ltd., which is based in eastern China, presented a tram which is driven with hydrogen. The new H2 tram, which features a fuel cell system from Ballard, left the production line in the port city of Qingdaoon 19th March 2015. In comparison with this, all of the previous attempts to bring fuel cells onto the railroads seem to have been shaky first efforts.
CSR Qingdao Sifang is a subsidiary company of the China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corp. Ltd. (CSR), which is viewed as being the biggest manufacturer of electrical locomotives in the world. The employees at its production and testing location in Qingdao developed a fuel cell tram which has a range of 100km, and is able to travel at up to 70km/h with up to 380 passengers. According to Liang Jianying, the firm’s Chief Engineer, the refueling time is similar to that of a FC car: the tanks are full in three minutes.
The fuel cell system for this tram is based on the FCvelocity® from Ballard Power Systems and is integrated in the low-level floor. At the start of April 2015, Randy MacEwen, President of the Canadian FC manufacturer commented on it as follows: “This is a highly interesting demonstration of our world leading fuel cell module in a new application. Clean urban mobility is now a high priority in China, and this zero emissions prototype of a fuel cell tram is an important step in demonstrating a solution.” MacEwen was also extremely pleased that it had proven possible for the tram to be completed just a few months after signing the cooperation agreement and after the receipt of the order.
In recent times, there have also been noteworthy attempts to use FC systems in rail transport in Europe. For instance, at the InnoTrans 2014 in Berlin, the leading trade fair for transportation technology, the French company Alstom announced its intention to begin operating emissions-free railcars in four German states. To sign the declarations of intent, the corresponding ministers from Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, and the executive directors of the transportation firms met in Berlin.
This project is being supported by the National Innovation Program for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NIP). Enak Ferlemann, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for Transportation and Digital Infrastructure made the following comments: “In the scope of the national innovation program, this is a pioneering project: the initial use of the fuel cells technology in rail transportation. If it succeeds in providing proof of the suitability of the technology for general and daily use, it means we will have a genuine, emissions-free alternative form of propulsion.”
Michael Groschek, Transportation Minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, said: “The fuel cell train designed by Alstom is travelling in exactly the right direction!” Transportation Minister of Hesse, Tarek Al-Wazir, added: “Propulsion systems which use energy storage devices such as hydrogen are set to become the binding link in a networked energy supply system.” Henri Poupart-Lafarge, President of Alstom Transport, had originally said that: “Our trains are set to be the first in the world to use fuel cell technology for regular passenger transportation operations.” Apparently, when making this statement in September 2014, he did not yet know about the aforementioned Canadian-Chinese railcar.
The practical testing of two FC rail prototypes from Alstom is scheduled to take place in Lower Saxony in 2018. The development and construction will take place at Alstom’s competence center for regional trains in Salzgitter. Hydrogenics will be supplying the fuel cells. A corresponding declaration of intent was signed on 27th May 2015, in which it was agreed that over the next ten years, the development and the commercialization will be completed together by Alstom Transport and Hydrogenics. The volume of the order is estimated to total EUR 50 million and will consist of at least 200 propulsion systems which will be based on Hydrogenics’ HD series, including their servicing and maintenance. The first FC systems are set to be delivered to Alstom in 2016.
Daryl Wilson, Director of Hydrogenics, explained: “Hydrogen is continuing to grow in importance in terms of reducing the energy-related and pollution problems which are caused all over the world by transportation that is based on fossil fuels. The electrification of heavy goods transportation, in comparison, enables efficient, clean, hydrogen-based energy solutions.”
In addition to these projects, which are to be realized soon, there are also examples which were announced to the public but were eventually abandoned. For example, on 10th August 2009, in the presence of the then Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Deutsche Bahn AG held a launch event prior to the construction of its new DB Eco Rail Center. The competence centre which, according to the DB, was to be “one of the most modern in the world for railroad technology,” was to be built in Kirchmöser, Brandenburg. One of its first areas of research was to be the New Energy Train, a train operating with the help of solar energy and hydrogen. However, nothing has been heard of it since.
There were also temporally limited individual projects in Japan, for example, where some initial boxcars that had been converted to run on fuel cells went into operation as part of a test project. In South Africa, FC mining locomotives were tested, while in 2009, an FC shunting locomotive went into use in the USA. Once again, nothing more has been heard of these projects.
The announcement from Alstom led to a discussion in Hesse, Germany, about whether the planned electrification of the rail network would be continued with or not. When asked during an interview where the new trains would be used in the future, Prof. Knut Ringat, Director of the Rhine-Main Transportation Association (RMV), said the following: “If you look at the RMV rail network there are three lines which aren’t electrified.” These include the two lines on the Taunus railroad to Königstein and Grävenwiesbach. An RMV spokesperson said the following to the Taunus-Zeitung newspaper, however: “The pilot project for the testing of the fuel cell technology is taking place independently of the planned electrification of the Taunus railroad. That is still on the agenda.”