The ‘H’ Factor

Written by David Thomas, Canadian Contributing Editor

RAILWAY AGE, FEBRUARY 2021 ISSUE: First steam. Then Electric. Then diesel. Then batteries. Next: Hydrogen fuel cells?

Canada’s railroads were  the last to dieselize in 1960 when CN retired its white-trimmed, coal-burning Northerns and Canadian Pacific its grey-and-maroon, oil-burning Selkirks. Redemptively, Canada will be first in the decarbonization of today’s fleet of heavy-haul road locomotives. 

In a grand, clean energy strategy published in mid-December, a brain trust of cross-sector Canadian savants predicted that hydrogen-powered locomotion—already nicknamed “hydrail”—would be ready for testing some time about 2025, first in the form of yard switchers, short-leashed to their refueling stations.

The very next day, Dec. 18, Canadian Pacific (CP) smashed that timeline, and woke the North American rail industry. At the direction of Railway Age 2021 Railroader of the Year CEO Keith Creel, CP revealed it would pull the diesel engine and traction alternator from of one of its road units, and replace them with an array of hydrogen fuel cells and a companion battery. Most of the rest of the modern locomotive will remain unchanged, including its six traction motors and digital power controls.

“This is a globally significant project that positions CP at the leading edge of decarbonizing the freight transportation sector,” said Creel.

CP’s audacious decision to leapfrog the expected transition path was a well-kept secret, even from the railway’s peers on the federally sponsored strategy group. It caught competing carriers by surprise. 

The transformation of existing locomotives from diesel-electric to hydrogen-electric will be the story line for North American power through the 2020s, just as the dominant theme of the 1950s was the transition from steam to diesel-electric. Soon enough, a locomotive’s life cycle will include decision points in which rebuilding a worn diesel engine will be weighed against replacing it with drop-in fuel-cell modules. For railroaders, like most everyone else, the hydrogen age has dawned.

A spontaneous consensus emerged in 2020 that massive public and private investment will be needed to reboot Western economies after the disruption of COVID-19. That neatly coincided with the raging forces of hurricanes, wildfires and Greta Thunberg. Together, they mobilized consumers, investors, governments and captains of industry against degradation of the atmosphere. Freight locomotion was high on the list of things to fix, with CP calling diesel power “the industry’s most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The sleeper hiding in plain view was hydrogen, the lightest and most common element on Earth, yet one so reactive with other substances that it does not persist in a free state. When hydrogen combines with oxygen, the result is water and a substantial surplus of electrical potential. The H was first split from H2O in 1776, and in 1807, it powered the first internal combustion automobile. Then, in 1847, the first oil well was drilled in the South Caucasus, and hydrogen became a Cinderella technology, waiting for its prince. 

The glass slipper finally fit in 2020, when a worried and repentant world turned against the ugly sisters. Ascendant airframer Airbus unveiled concepts for three different hydrogen-powered aircraft; hydrogen replaced coal in the world’s newest iron ore and cement furnaces; and Norwegian shipping firm Wilhelmsen announced it would launch the first fuel-cell ship, and that it would consume only green hydrogen harvested from the country’s ample, offshore wind.

Global petroleum giants Shell and BP declared they would wind down their oil and gas businesses, and invest massively in hydrogen production and delivery. In contrast, long-time climate-change denier ExxonMobil doubled down on petroleum, and watched its stock shrivel right off the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Asset managers stampeded to follow leader BlackRock’s repudiation of investments in coal and oil.

This does presage a permanent decline in fossil fuel haulage for railroads, but it also frees capacity for more virtuous commodities such as the Prairie grain, which provided CN and CP with so much pandemic revenue that the government raked some of it back as excess profit. And hydrogen could become a new profit center as demand exceeds the reach of new and converted pipelines.

Hydrogen’s immediate prospect for rail is as a clean (and quiet) substitute for dirty (and noisy) internal combustion. Maintenance differentials impelled the mid-20th century switch from steam. Hydrogen fuel cells, with zero moving parts and plug-in modularity, promise similar benefits. 

Instead of drawing power from a diesel-driven alternator, a hydrogen-fueled locomotive produces electricity through reverse osmosis, converting hydrogen and ambient oxygen into water and energy. Some of the electricity is used directly; some is diverted to charge a power-conditioning battery that provides surge power for starts and grades. 

The heart of a fuel cell is a thin proton exchange membrane (PEM) that resembles plastic kitchen film. It allows ions to pass between anode and cathode layers of the electrode sandwich, while blocking everything else. The U.S. Department of Energy last year granted $4.8 million to 3M to set up production lines for gigawatt-scale PEM electrolyzers. 

Of more immediate interest to chief mechanical officers, $3 million went to diesel engine maker Cummins, for development of heavy-duty PEM fuel cells. Cummins has adopted tech’s scorpion-like strategy of eating its own young. Locomotive builders must now choose whether to challenge Cummins with incremental tweaks to their diesel engines, the way Lima designed a 2-8-6 version of its Super Power steam technology to fight off the GP- and U-series diesel-electrics offered by Electro-Motive and General Electric. 

Cummins, through its New Power division, has indulged in a shopping spree for hydrogen technologies: In September 2019, Cummins acquired Canadian fuel-cell developer Hydrogenics, the first mover in locomotive-scale fuel cells. Then, this past November, it bought half-interest in Dutch hydrogen tank maker NPROXX, whose new Type 4 carbon fiber pressure vessels are rated for 30 years, and could well revive the steam age notion of auxiliary fuel tenders.

Cummins (below) has also allied itself with France’s Air Liquide to build green hydrogen generators. It is now commissioning what will be the world’s biggest PEM electrolyzer plant, one that will produce 3,000 tons of hydrogen annually. The plant, in Bécancour, Quebec will use surplus hydroelectricity that would otherwise be water over the province’s remote northern dams. Air Liquide is also a minority shareholder in Cummins’ Hydrogenics.

Every actor in CP’s pioneering conversion is obeying strict radio silence, but with Hydrogenics making the only locomotive-scale fuel cells, and NPROXX making the only storage tanks big and robust enough to match the needs of a line-haul freight locomotive, CP’s technology options would appear to be limited to Cummins’ neatly cornered supply chain for hydrogen’s equivalent of Super Power.

France’s Alstom might seem to be furthest down the line with a production-line fuel-cell passenger train, the Coradia iLint. But, under the hood, the Alstom trains are powered by Cummins’ Hydrogenics fuel cells.

Where does this leave rivals such as Wabtec, and its legacy of GE diesel engineering? Wabtec is promoting the concept of hybrid lash-ups in which one of the units will be purely powered by batteries that recharge on the fly from dynamic braking. Wabtec said its hybrid FLXdrive will cut fossil fuel emissions by 10%—modest compared to hydrogen’s ultimate promise of 100% reductions.

But zero-emission hydrogen must be made with clean energy in the first place. Hydrogen’s dirty little secret is that the least-expensive, most-available hydrogen is made by cooking natural gas to release the unwanted atoms as carbon dioxide. 

Though it is a colorless gas that burns invisibly, commercial hydrogen comes in three colors: gray, blue and green. Gray hydrogen is the stuff currently made from natural gas by oil companies to spike low-grade products with extra calories. Blue hydrogen is the same as gray, except that the orphan carbon molecules are either buried as carbon dioxide or captured as a useful solid. 

Scarcity is the biggest drag on the fuel’s otherwise headlong charge to shunt internal combustion to the dead line by mid-century. The steel and cement sectors will gobble up much of current and future supply, since the red dot of energy regulators is sighted squarely on their use of coal. Truckers will be thirsty for anything left. Canada is hoping that demand for gray and blue hydrogen will help Alberta’s natural gas industry bridge the demand gap for green hydrogen generated from wind and solar (of which Alberta also has plenty).

Safety is a critical issue: Hydrogen is a Class 2 flammable gas so powerful that it is indeed rocket fuel. The Space Shuttle’s external launch tanks carried liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

Gaseous hydrogen is most safely moved underground. (If the pipe dream of Keystone XL is ever to be accepted by U.S. governments, courts, Native Americans and climate change advocates, it could be to transport green hydrogen, not Alberta’s pseudo-oil extracted from tar sands.) A hydrogen pipeline leak would be of no environmental consequence, with the escaping gas turning instantly into water. 

For destinations beyond the reach of pipelines, hydrogen is best chilled to its liquid phase. Liquid hydrogen is approved for transport in DOT 113 tank cars, whose inner stainless steel tank is vacuum-insulated from its outer carbon steel jacket. It also moves routinely by road in comparable tube-tank trailers. 

A hydrogen tank car breach could certainly ignite amid the sparking of a derailment. But it would immediately transform into water vapor, either through combustion or by dispersing upward at high speed and reacting with atmospheric oxygen. There would be no towering fireball, no residue to clean up, and no release of noxious gases. Intact but grounded tank cars could be safely vented before the cranes start scraping steel.

Germany does not yet permit the transport of hydrogen by rail. But Deutsche Bahn concluded last year that hydrogen can indeed be safely moved by rail.

Elon Musk’s skepticism notwithstanding, hydrogen fuel cells have substantial advantages over the lithium-ion batteries that power his Tesla automobiles: Hydrogen weighs less than gasoline per unit of energy, and it loses weight as it is consumed, meaning no dead batteries to lug around between charging stations. Hydrogen refuelling takes minutes instead of hours. Also, unlike lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen does not spontaneously combust.

A hydrogen locomotive will be nearly silent: No growling engine, just the barely audible hum of traction motors and the occasional squeal of wheel on steel. Engineers will enjoy instant throttle response, and locomotives will not have to idle through winter to heat coolant and oil.

The Canadian strategy anticipates that rebuilds will be more common than new designs, since most of an existing locomotive remains in a hydrogen conversion: “Retrofitting locomotives and replacing diesel engines with zero-emission fuel cell engines is a viable and cost-effective alternative to purpose built hydrail trains, which is an important opportunity given the long (50 year-plus) life cycle of locomotives.”

Postscript: Lima never did get that 2-8-6 from blueprint to erecting floor.


Cummins has seized first-mover status for heavy-duty hydrogen-electric technology, but virtually every locomotive and train maker is staking a claim in the hydrogen rush. Railway Age spoke with Amy Adams, Vice President of Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Technologies.

RA: Cummins is making a big commitment to hydrail. Why now? Isn’t it premature given the state of the technology and availability of hydrogen?

ADAMS: Even under unprecedented circumstances in 2020, hydrogen fuel cell solutions for decarbonized transportation have enjoyed wider adoption this past year. Last year, 53 hydrogen and hydrogen fuel projects in transportation applications for mobility have been announced in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. Consumer and commercial transport will continue to be a key driver of decarbonization efforts in 2021. We’ve seen real progress from policymakers, industry and businesses, with regulatory deadlines brought forward, more joint commitments signed, and huge investments made in infrastructure. 

Many countries are aiming towards zero emissions targets by 2040 or sooner. There is a huge amount at stake: Countries with strong decarbonization propositions will be in the driver’s seat for how we move for the next century. Cummins is well positioned to support the transition to a hydrogen economy with our unique capabilities in fuel cell and hydrogen production technologies.In Europe specifically where our hydrail is located, there are a variety of ‘green stimulus’ measures, ranging from consumer incentives to supporting hydrogen infrastructure, which speaks to a collaborative and cross-industry approach in accelerating the shift to more sustainable transport.

Because the cost of fuel cells and hydrogen is projected to remain above that of internal combustion engines for at least 10 years, we anticipate adoption of fuel cells to begin in markets where the cost of these items, as a proportion of total cost of ownership, are lowest. This is why Cummins has focused on a market like rail, where the powertrain and fuel cost represent 50% of total operating cost. Trains also run on fixed routes and require lower infrastructure in terms of hydrogen refueling. In addition, support for public subsidies exists, and the incremental costs to purchase a hydrogen train are lower than the costs of electrifying rail lines. 

RA: Why is Cummins competing against its traditional excellence in diesel technology? Wouldn’t it be better for Cummins to defend its existing technology in the marketplace instead of promoting a rival technology?

ADAMS: One of Cummins’ differentiators when compared to our competitors in this space is that we are a full-solutions provider. Climate change is real. As a global power leader, we are focused on developing and offering technologies that are better for our customers, the environment and our communities. Cummins is investing significantly in technology solutions ranging from cleaner and more efficient natural gas and advanced diesel engines, hybrid, battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric powertrains. We will continue to engage with policymakers and regulators to bring efficient, reliable and cost-effective power to our customers and to ensure regulation changes are successful in achieving the environmental improvements we need.

RA: Which geographies are most propitious for hydrail and why?

ADAMS: In general, any region with public subsidies is well-suited for fuel-cell-based systems where the incremental costs to purchase a hydrogen train are lower than the costs of electrifying rail lines. Europe has been the most active market for hydrail. Many European countries have made a clear commitment to lead the way in environmental protection by reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as other air contaminants and noise. While a large part of Europe’s railways are electrified, a significant portion still rely on diesel trains to operate. In order to achieve international climate protection targets in a sector with 30-year investment cycles, solutions for non-electrified tracks are needed to achieve their goals. 

In North America, Canada recently released a hydrogen plan with intension to fund hydrail projects, taking a step further toward hydrail development. In the United States, less than 1,000 km are electrified (less than 0.5% of the network length). The mostly freight-only railways in the United States typically run very long trains along very long routes with a lot of cargo. There are many different lines across the country, each typically belonging to a different company that will run trains along their own lines. This makes electrifying lines difficult and expensive and makes hydrail a viable solution. 

The Hydrogen Council estimates in 2030 that fuel cell adoption in trains will reach about 10%. Fuel cell trains are now operational in Germany, with travelers benefiting from the reduction in noise and air pollution from conventional diesel-powered trains. Cummins recently announced our intentions to build a new facility in Europe to support the production of fuel-cell systems for the hundreds of hydrogen trains we plan to power over the next several years in Europe with Alstom. Outside of Germany, deployments of fuel-cell trains have been announced for Italy and the United Kingdom and scheduled for Japan and South Korea. We hope that the hydrail successes in Europe serve as a good example and knowledge base to foster further development in North America. 

RAAre you anticipating a Biden Administration energy and infrastructure program that would create a hydrogen-friendly regulatory and commercial environment?

ADAMS: We are encouraged by signals from both the Administration and Congress that they are committed not only to addressing climate change, but also promoting U.S. manufacturing and jobs. With infrastructure authorization legislation needed by this fall, there is a significant opportunity for Congress to invest in hydrogen and fuel cell technology that is a critical component of economy-wide decarbonization. We anticipate a robust discussion around the right policies to incentivize infrastructure, development and deployment using all of the tax, grant, appropriations and legislative tools available. We look forward to working with President Biden and his team to share our industry perspective as they develop decarbonization and hydrogen-specific roadmaps and goals.

RA: Why did Cummins choose to invest in Hydrogenics rather than developing HFC technology from scratch?

ADAMS: Cummins has been developing capabilities in electrified powertrains and fuel cells for more than 20 years. By acquiring Hydrogenics, Cummins accelerated its capabilities in this space, quickly adding a unique collection of IP and technology for our fuel-cell portfolio, a proven team and a long track record of commercial success. Welcoming Hydrogenics into the Cummins familyimmediately gained the company more than 2,000 fuel-cell and 500 electrolyzer installations around the world, and more than 55 fueling stations in operation. Having these products already in the field gives Cummins critical access to data and key learnings that can be used in our product development. Also, Hydrogenics added a brand-new product line for Cummins with the addition ofhydrogen generation technologies (electrolyzers) to our portfolio. Cummins is now one of the few companies that offers both fuel-cell and hydrogen production technologies that are scalable across a wide range of markets. Owning these key capabilities enables Cummins to offer a full differentiated solution, from start to finish, seamlessly integrated for customers.

RA: Will Cummins keep Hydrogenics R&D in Canada? Do Canadian taxation and health care regimes make it advantageous to conduct such R&D in Canada? Will HFC manufacturing be distributed geographically, starting with the newly announced plant in Germany?

ADAMS: We are committed to Canada and will add manufacturing capabilities as demand rises. We currently have a global footprint, with fuel-cell and hydrogen sites in Canada, Belgium, Germany and China. The newly announced location in Herten, Germany will enable Cummins to produce a high volume of fuel cell systems for customers, specifically Alstom, further strengthening our commitment to hydrogen technologies in Europe.

RA: How does HFC compare with diesel engines with respect to maintenance and repair? Is it easy to swap out HFC components rather than repairing in situ which takes the locomotive or car out of service? Can HFC be installed in modules to provide a prescribed power output?

ADAMS: Cummins is proud to be working with key partners in the rail space as they explore zero-emission solutions for their customers. The business case for hydrail can vary based on regional incentives and customer duty cycles, but the drive to electrification in general is evident globally, either by electrifying lines with battery and/or fuel cell systems. 

In some cases, hydrail is already cost-competitive to alternatives when designed for long, non-electrified lines over 100 km and where energy to produce hydrogen is affordable. Economically, they can outperform catenary electrification where service frequencies are lower, while still providing the environmental gains of electrification with performance and refueling time comparable to diesel. With fewer moving parts in a fuel cell system, it is expected that downtime, repair and maintenance costs will be less than diesel and battery counterparts. 

In other cases, battery-powered trains may appear as a more cost-effective option but come with operational constraints resulting from route-specific tailored battery configurations—offering less flexibility for train utilization outside of their prescribed design. Although fuel cell systems also utilize batteries, they are less of a limiting factor. Cummins’ fuel cell systems are modular and can be more easily scaled to adapt to a wider variety of routes and applications. 

RA: What is the significance of the joint venture with NPROXX with respect to rail applications. Will we see the eventual introduction of fuel tender tank cars that will run behind HFC locomotives?

ADAMS: Cummins’ joint venture with NPROXX will assist to help further hydrail system development. NPROXX already supplies key OEMs in European rail, which will continue and likely expand through Cummins global footprint. As a manufacturer of carbon fiber tanks, it has an advanced Type 4 carbon fiber pressure vessel with a superior strength to weight ratio, which leads to greatly improved fuel economy and expanded range. 

NPROXX provides 350 BAR onboard storage solutions for bus, truck and commuter train OEMs and 700 BAR tanks for fuel-cell-electric passenger vehicles. The same pressure vessel design in its certified transport containers that is used for storing and delivering compressed hydrogen gas to fueling stations. 

RA: Will we see the eventual introduction of fuel tender tank cars that will run behind HFC locomotives?

ADAMS: As an industry leader, we have noticed an increase in the interest in using hydrogen for freight locomotive applications whereby tender cars are used to ensure sufficient fuel for the required range. It’s a signal to the industry that this may not only be a light rail commuter application, but in time this could go mainstream even for freight locomotives. Rolling stock used to transport liquified hydrogen is already common, so carrying additional fuel tanks may be a likely solution for some routes. The need for additional fuel storage will not only depend on the route but also the developing refueling infrastructure. As more refueling stations become available, the need to hold large amounts of fuel will reduce while still having the potential to reach distant and remote locations with additional fuel storage. 


Alstom: The French company leads in ready-to-run hydrogen passenger trains. After successful trials of its Coradia iLint in Austria, Alstom has opened the order book for the self-powered multiple-unit trains powered by Cummins’ Hydrogenics fuel cells. Among the firm orders are 41 trainsets for two German railways. 

PorterbrookThe British rolling stock maker has slotted fuel cells into a pair of existing, self-propelled passenger cars, and is testing them in main line trials. The fuel cells are from Ballard Power Systems, another Canadian manufacturer that also provides the fuel cells for China’s trial of the first hydrogen streetcars.

TalgoThe Spanish manufacturer announced that its Vittal-One hydrogen trains will be ready for testing this year, and will eventually displace diesels in its catalog. Commercial production is expected in 2023.

Hitachi/Toyota: A consortium of Hitachi, Toyota and East Japan Railway Company is marrying Toyota-built hydrogen fuel cells to battery-drive trains by Hitachi. The railway will design and build a two-car train, which will have a refueling range of 140 km and a top speed of 100 km/hour. It is to be tested next year in Tokyo suburban service.

Siemens: The German company is running late against its rival, Alstom, but is making up time in a deal with Deutsche Bahn to retrofit a pair of Mireo railcars with hydrogen fuel cells. The trains won’t be ready for testing until 2024. Siemens is also promising turnkey hydrogen generation and fueling systems.

Wabtec: Wabtec’s showpiece, low-carbon technology is its FLXdrive, a battery-packed, 4,400-hp unit sandwiched between two conventional diesels, now being tested by BNSF between Barstow and Stockton, Calif. The company acknowledges that hydrogen must also become part of its future: “Wabtec is evaluating a variety of alternative and sustainable energy sources for the rail industry, including hydrogen. It is a key focus area in the company’s initiative to develop innovations that drive decarbonization. The road to decarbonization will require a phased approach. It will be a combination of leveraging battery-electric locomotives and new technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells.”

Progress Rail: “As a leading OEM for the global rail industry, Progress Rail continuously reviews innovative approaches and numerous technologies to meet customer needs,” the company told Railway Age. “While we are committed to our current technology and are leveraging Caterpillar resources in the hydrogen fuel cell technology space, our highly experienced team is proactively considering multiple alternative power sources and has already brought to market sustainable solutions for natural gas and battery power. We will continue to evaluate and examine what will best meet customer requirements and market demands in a reliable and cost-effective manner.”

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