In 2017 the French rail multinational Alstom unveiled its new zero carbon train, powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The company signed deals to supply them to the German rail network earlier this year, and last week we learned that the technology will be coming to Britain too.
It won’t be exactly the same train. To speed things up, Alstom will be retrofitting an existing fleet of electric trains to run on the fuel cells. No word yet on where they will run or when they’ll be ready, as far as I know, though do let me know if you’ve heard.
This is good news, first because hydrogen trains can be zero carbon – depending on how you produce the hydrogen of course. They are quiet and non-polluting, and if they can replace diesel trains that would mark a considerable improvement. The second reason is that the government recently cancelled three rail electrification schemes because they cost too much. With all three schemes long promised and endlessly delayed, that decision provoked an angry reaction. But hydrogen trains could potentially decarbonise the railways for less money and far less disruption than fitting overhead cables on large parts of the network. And if older trains can be succesfully retrofitted, a transition to hydrogen could be cheaper and faster than we thought. It’s definitely a project to keep an eye on.
Whenever they arrive, those hydrogen trains will build on a long term trend in the right direction on Britain’s railways. More electric trains are running, and more people are using them. Together that is bringing down the CO2 per passenger kilometre, with the carbon footprint of train travel falling by 25% over the last decade or so.