Ontario, Bombardier in talks for hydrogen commuter train

Now, let’s remember it’s election time in Ontario, so you have to take comments from a political leader running for re-election with a grain of salt. That said, Premier Dalton McGuinty said today that his government has been in discussions with Canadian train manufacturer Bombardier about creating an “Ontario-developed and built hydrogen-powered commuter train” for the province. “Ontario Liberals think Ontarians can — and should — lead the development of hydrogen alternatives for the world,” McGuinty told a crowd on a stop in Thunder Bay, where Bombardier currently makes GO Transit commuter train cars. The comment was absent of detail, but it certainly raised a few curious eyebrows in the crowd.

As intriguing as the hydrogen train or “hydrail” concept sounds, Ontario wouldn’t be the first jurisdiction to pursue it. A European consortium called The Hydrogen Train concluded a feasibility study last year that looked at demonstrating the first hydrogen-powered train in Europe on a Danish railway. The goal of the project is to launch the first train by 2010. Bombardier has been approached, along with its competitors, and did show interest. In fact, back in 2001-2002 Bombardier applied for European Union funding as part of a project to develop a hydrogen-powered “Green Train.” The funding, however, was never granted.

In Japan, there has also been activity. Earlier this year, East Japan Railway started trialling its own hydrogen train. It hopes to be transporting commuters with such a machine within the next 20 years. In the U.S., North Carolina has shown interest in creating its own hydrogen railway system, while a company called Vehicle Projects LLC has been designing these next-generation trains as part of a collaboration with the U.S. military. There’s even an international hydrail conference that’s entering its fourth year with a meeting in Spain in June 2008.

So, is all this worth the stink? I mean, are hydrogen trains really a good idea, or should we be focusing on hybrid-electric trains that run partly on biodiesel? Well, the hydrogen approach does have some merit, whether it’s using fuel cells or modified ICEs. According to the site Hydrail.net:

One of the most compelling arguments for adopting hydrogen trains rapidly is that a vast hydrogen distribution network will not have to be built anywhere near the scale that it will have to be built for hydrogen cars. The decreased mobility of a train as compared to a car will be an advantage in delivering hydrogen to just a few key refueling points along the rail line. Trains don’t drive off-road or in complicated city streets and alleys like cars do, so this is an inherent advantage of hydrail.

Now, a common criticism whenever anybody talks of a hydrogen economy relates to the source of the hydrogen. Is it coming from a fossil fuel and therefore dirty at the source, or does it come from an electrolysis process powered by emission-free electricity, whether that be nuclear or renewables? If one considers the train link between Toronto and Montreal one can immediately see the opportunities. The trains run fairly close to two major nuclear plants, where hydrogen could be produced using surplus baseload power overnight. There’s also the potential of setting up offshore wind farms in Lake Ontario (at least two have already been proposed) that could generate hydrogen when the wind power isn’t needed. What’s interesting with this is that we could use the train system as a way to lay the first building blocks to a much larger hydrogen infrastructure down the road — literally.

Over the past two years I’ve been more critical of the hydrogen and fuel cell markets, perhaps turned off by the marketing and hype we saw in the late 1990s up to about 2002. But we have to remember that fuel cells and hydrogen are not tied at the hip. We can have a hydrogen economy without fuel cells and we can have fuel cells run on non-hydrogen fuels. What’s increasingly clear, and I appreciate this after a recent call with some hydrogen experts, is that we need to start producing large amounts of this clean-burning gas to get economies of scale and to lower the cost of the fuel itself. Once that happens, the market can take care of itself. Trains (like buses) could be part of this crucial first step, and in this sense, it’s definitely something worth talking about in Ontario.