Hydrogen Strategy for Canada’s Railways

Written by David Thomas, Canadian Contributing Editor

Canada wants to bring back steam to its railways, but don’t expect the return of glorious white plumes of condensation, drifting over deep-frozen prairies. This time, the steam would be the invisible exhaust of high-efficiency locomotives and self-propelled passenger units, powered by the on-board conversion of hydrogen into electricity and hot water vapor. Canada hopes to build upon its advantage as builder of the world’s first HFC (hydrogen fuel cell) prime-mover.

The Hydrogen Strategy for Canada, released Dec. 16 by the Canadian government, is driven in equal measure by the country’s commitment to decarbonize, and the imperative of a massive economic recovery from the consequences of COVID-19. Without that political pincer squeeze, hydrogen could have lingered for years more as the obvious, but too costly, alternative to fossil fuels.

Download Hydrogen Strategy for Canada:

With the pandemic-driven collapse in demand for oil and gas, the country has the even more urgent motive of reassigning Alberta’s obsolescent investment in oil and gas to a successor energy future, still reliant on the province’s abundant expertise in energy extraction, processing and pipeline engineering. In fact, the reforming of natural gas into hydrogen is an established process in the conversion of bitumen from northern tar sands into ersatz oil.

Rail will not likely have much of a role in the long-distance transport of compressed or liquified hydrogen gas because of its high hazard, and the strategy is silent on that as an opportunity. But as a substitute for diesel exhaust and its increasingly understood toxicity, hydrogen-electric traction power is already viable. Canada sees “hydrail” as the solution of choice for heavy-haul, long-distance freight, as well as for passenger service.

“Hydrail offers a cost-effective way to electrify rail service compared with the traditional electrification approaches, using overhead catenary wires or a third rail,” notes the Hydrogen Strategy report. “Greenhouse gas emissions from diesel trains are a significant contributor to global warming, and transit trains produce local air contaminant emissions that contribute to poor air quality in urban areas. Authorities are under growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions from rail service, but other electrification options are costly, and require massive infrastructure upgrades.

“Hydrail trains require no electrification infrastructure, but rather run on existing unmodified tracks. Hydrail enables a gradual transition to electrification, one train at a time, vs. alternative infrastructure rebuilds that disrupt service and require an upfront investment to electrify all trains concurrently.”

The strategy points to French rail equipment manufacturer Alstom’s deployment of its first, two-car passenger trains in schedule service in Austria, with 41 more on the order book from two German railways. Alstom’s Coradia iLint trains contain two HFC generators with a refueling range of 1,000 km. Hydrogenics Corp., an Ontario company purchased in September 2019 by U.S. diesel engine manufacturer Cummins, supplied the fuel cells. Cummins’ huge global reach in rail power may signal a transformation as profound as that from coal to diesel.

In addition to Alstom and Cummins, Siemens has announced its own high-intensity hydrail push that promises to deliver not just trains, but also complete turnkey hydrogen fuel systems to railways.

While VIA Rail says its imminent High-Frequency Rail dedicated corridor in Quebec and Ontario will employ dual-power locomotives, capable of drawing power from overhead catenary or on-board conventional diesel engines with traction alternators (like the Bombardier ALP45-DP units in service on NJ Transit and Montreal’s AMT), a huge rebuild of Greater Toronto’s Metrolinx system will, indeed, consider hydrogen as an alternative to catenary. Metrolinx may jump-start hydrail in Canada, says the federal strategy paper:

“The most comprehensive look at hydrail in Canada to date has been through the Metrolinx Hydrail study, published in 2018 to look at the feasibility of using HFC trains to electrify the GO networks as an alternative to electrification using conventional overhead wires, in Ontario. The study concludes that it is technically and economically feasible to build and operate the GO network using HFC-powered rail vehicles, and the costs of building and operating a hydrail system are equivalent to that of a conventional overhead electrification system.”

As for Canada’s freight rail network, the study anticipates initial introduction of HFC power to yard switchers, followed by a gradual refitting of existing road locomotives:

“Early studies assessing freight applicability of hydrail concluded that hydrail for freight switching is technically and economically feasible. 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.”

However, on Dec. 18, Canadian Pacific announced that it is embarking on building and testing a prototype of an HFC-powered road locomotive.

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