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HFC Developments Accelerating, Part 2

Written by Gordon V. Jefferson, President; and Jenalea Smith, Associate, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Train Association
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CPKC/HGmotive photo

This is the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Train Association’s (HFCTA) third article in a series addressing hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) powered trainsets, locomotives and streetcars that are commercially available, in development or planned around the world.

HFCTA’s first article addressing this subject, “HFCTA Hydrogen Fuel Cell Overview,” was published by Railway Age in April 2022. The second, “HFC Developments Accelerating (Part 1),” was published in January.

Why the quest for zero-emission rail transportation? Reducing harmful Green House Gas (GHG) emissions sustains our earth to be livable for our grandchildren and generations beyond. It is not the purpose of this article to debate the issue that over the years combustion of fossil fuel energies by man has caused the Earth’s global warming condition. This article accepts the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Planal on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. Thus, the application of HFC technologies complies with the reduction of harmful GHGs.

The purpose of this article is to provide the readers a synopsis of significant events that have occurred since HFCTA’s most recent publishing that are significant to the HFCTA’s cause, replacing diesel-powered locomotives emitting unwanted GHG with zero-emission HFC powered locomotives and passenger trainsets. 

How does a fuel cell function? In brief, an HFC is composed of a membrane, cathode and anode. As hydrogen gas is passed through the membrane, an electrical current is generated between the anode and the cathode. The electrical energy is temporarily stored in a battery. Multiple HFCs are stacked together with combined electrical energy fed to the storage battery. The number of HFCs stacked is determined by the electrical energy required to perform a desired function. 

A diesel-electric locomotive uses a traction alternator (electrical generator) driven by the diesel engine to power traction motors. An HFC-powered locomotive replaces the diesel engine and traction alternator with an HFC stack that provides the battery with the required electrical output for the traction motors. 


As an alternative to diesel power, HFC offers no fossil fuel combustion, as the HFC process is a chemical one. There are no hydrocarbon emissions (particulate matter, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen). The only byproducts of the HFC process are heat and water. There are fewer moving parts, thus less maintenance. 

As an alternative to electrification with overhead electrical energy source wiring , there is no need for expensive catenary and its associated infrastructure (i.e., substations, transformers), because all HFC electrical energy is generated on board the vehicle. Eliminating catenary significantly reduces construction cost per track-mile and associated maintenance costs. A managed HFC system does require infrastructure (i.e., generation, storage, transport, and dispensing), but its cost is equivalent to that of only a few track-miles of electrification. 

During an HFC conversion, the frames of diesel-powered locomotives are not discarded. After removing the diesel engine, motor generator and additional items from the frame, there is space available to install fuel cell stacks, batteries, hydrogen fuel tanks and replacement controls, for the fuel cells to provide adequate electrical power to the retained traction motors. This principle is applied to all HFC powered locomotives produced by the Sierra Northern Railway, the University of Birmingham Center for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), commuter rail HFC trains, and  HydroFLEX. Stargate Hydrogen, located in Estonia, is converting 40 diesel-powered locomotives to HFC.

The progress of zero-emission rail is occurring all over the world. Europe (Germany/France) began as leaders. Canada is now catching up to Europe as the developer of a Class I HFC-powered freight line-haul locomotive. The State of California has made 29 purchases of HFC powered passenger trainsets and established near-term plans to become a major commuter rail HFC powered train user. The United Kingdom, Spain, China and Estonia are all making their contributions to global warming reduction via usage of zero-emission rail transportation.

In HFCTA’s opinion, the hero to date is Kyle Milligan, AVP Operations Technology, Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC), with his team’s development and operational implementation of CPKC’s “HSOEL” HFC powered locomotive, an outstanding achievement. In addition, CPKC President and CEO Keith Creel’s unwavering commitment plans for converting CPKC’s entire fleet of existing diesel-powered locomotives to HFC is a commitment that not only contributes to reduction of global warming, but will also pay off economically.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is the first state or national agency to produce a regulatory document regulating the migration from Tier 4 pollution levels to Tier 5 zero-emissions. 

During the summer 2023, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) members witnessed an operational demonstration of CPKC’s HFC locomotive. FRA’s published assessment: 

“FRA is pleased that CPKC is making efforts to improve the sustainability of its rail operations, and the agency is committed to partnering with railroads and stakeholders to advance our climate and sustainability goals. As research in hydrogen fuel cells and other emerging technologies continue, the agency will closely monitor new developments to ensure compliance with FRA regulations.” 

In addition, you can find an overview of FRA’s environmental and sustainability efforts on its Rail Climate Considerations webpage. In addition, in April 2022, FRA launched its Rail Industry Climate Challenge, which asks rail operators as well as manufacturers of rail equipment to commit to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.  Within the March 28, 2023 version of the “The U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization,” a Joint Strategy to Transform Transportation, page 68, it states: “Diesel alternatives for use in the freight rail industry are primarily in demonstration stages and not yet widely available, although there are interim opportunities to advance fleet technologies by retrofitting locomotives and using modular hybridization. For example, there are battery-powered locomotives in use (primarily in switch yards) and additional pilot projects using battery-powered locomotives or hydrogen fuel cells are under way. Sustainable fuels can play a key role in reducing rail emissions, especially in the near and medium terms, but they are currently not cost competitive.” This statement implies that until the cost of hydrogen fuel becomes a cost competitive commodity, no serious U.S. efforts will be applied to using available HFC-powered trains.

During the Dec. 6, 2023 U.N. COP28 meeting, the “Joint Statement by Transportation Canada, the United States Department of Transportation and the United States Department of Energy on Taking Action to Reduce Rail Sector Emissions” was issued.

As of this writing, no joint investigative site has been identified, nor has any U.S. congressional funding has been identified for support of this announcement. The earliest funding appropriation may occur during 2025. Canada, via CPKC, is continuing to pursue HFC Class I freight locomotive development/operational programs, inclusive of pulling 20,000-ton coal trains, as noted above. 

In the U.S., no Department of Transportation (DOT)/Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) hydrogen powered trains usage national policy has been issued to date. 

Some Recent Developments