North America’s first hydrogen-powered train will take passengers on a two-and-a-half hour journey through central Quebec this summer.
It’s a demonstration launched earlier this month to show how electricity stored as hydrogen could replace diesel fuel on rail; where installing electrified rails or overhead lines would be challenging.
Proponents of using hydrogen in heavy transport say it could raise awareness and boost confidence in the emerging technology in North America.
The tourist train operated by French company Alstom will run Wednesday through Sunday through September 30 from Montmorency Falls in Quebec City to Baie-Saint-Paul – halfway along the Train de Charlevoix route – carrying up to 120 people in two railcars.
Nancy Belley, general manager of Réseau Charlevoix, the privately owned railroad that operates the train, says it’s an extraordinary opportunity for her company. She told Breaking: in French that riding the train is like being in another world.
“If you think you left your car and board a train that emits water vapor, you feel like you are part of a major decarbonization movement in Quebec,” she said.
The train consumes about 50 kilograms of hydrogen per day, estimates Serge Harnois, CEO of Harnois Énergies, which supplies the fuel. That replaces about 500 liters of diesel that would be burned during the journey.
While fossil fuels may be reaching their peak, “we are at the beginning of hydrogen’s history,” Harnois said.
Why the train is being tested in Quebec
The same train model, known as the Coradia iLint, has previously carried passengers in eight European countries. Germany, bought a version which uses fuel cells made in Canada for a hydrogen-only route last year.
Belley says Alstom approached Réseau Charlevoix and Groupe Le Massif, owner of the rails, because it was looking for a place in North America to test its train. The Train de Charlevoix route was ideal as it already used European technology and the new train was a good fit with the existing infrastructure.
Alstom said this week that the commercial operation of the train will allow it and its partners to see what it takes to develop “an ecosystem for hydrogen propulsion technology” in North America.
The Government of Quebec said in February that it invested $3 million in the $8 million project. At the time, Environment Minister Benoit Charette said it was part of the province’s plan for a green economy by 2030, which relies on hydrogen to decarbonise parts of the economy where conventional electrification is not possible.
So far, Belley says, it seems the North American regulations can work with a European train.
And, she says, it also appears that this technology lends itself well to low-density areas, such as the rural region of Charlevoix, where transportation would otherwise be more difficult to electrify.
Harnois rode the train when it launched on June 17 and says it was very quiet and comfortable compared to the noisy, poor-suspension diesel train that ran on that line before that, spewing black smoke behind it.
Instead, the new train only emits water vapour.
The vapor is created when the train takes hydrogen gas from the tank, combines it with oxygen in the air, and combines that in a fuel cell to generate electricity.
Where does the hydrogen come from?
Harnois Énergies, based in Quebec City, produces the hydrogen using an electrolyser, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. Because the electricity comes from Hydro-Quebec — that is 94 percent water-generated, five percent wind-generated, and almost completely carbon-free — is the resulting hydrogen considered green.
Alstom approached the company to supply hydrogen because it was able to pressurize the gas needed for this project.
A diesel truck takes the hydrogen to the train station for refuelling.
But Harnois says the fuel would ideally one day be produced on site.
For refueling, the full hydrogen tank of the truck is connected to the empty tank of the train and the pressure difference causes the hydrogen to flow from one tank to the other. A regulator regulates the flow so that it does not get too hot. Refueling takes about an hour.
The goal is for the train to eventually run the entire route from Quebec City to La Malbaie. But Belley says further testing is needed as that section of railway is very winding and the hydrogen train’s wheels are not in the same place as its diesel predecessor.
Belley says the train will not return next summer as it is a demonstration unit that will travel to other cities.
However, she said the railroad would like to buy one. “Because we know … we’ve confirmed that this is the kind of train that can be green in a place like ours.”
Why hydrogen for trains?
While many trains in Europe run on electric rails or are powered by overhead wires, those of Canada are long distances and low density are considered a challenge for electric trains.
CN Rail is testing an electric alternative: battery electric locomotives.
Meanwhile, CP Rail and Southern Railway of BC are testing hydrogen trains because they are more similar to diesel. They are expected to use a similar refueling infrastructure to diesel and have comparable refueling times. CP says it intends to operating three hydrogen locomotives by the end of the year.
Robert Stasko, executive director of the Ontario-based Hydrogen Business Council, said launching a hydrogen-powered passenger train is “a very big deal.”
“I think the most important thing that comes out of it is people’s awareness and comfort with the technology,” he said.
He said Alstom, which has already sold 41 hydrogen trains in Europe, wants to gain a foothold in North America.
“Obviously we think it’s a great idea,” he said. “I would like to see something like this in Ontario, for example, between Union Station and Pearson Airport to replace the diesel-powered UPS Express now.”
He also hopes familiarity with the train technology will encourage decision-makers to consider hydrogen for other applications, such as long-haul transportation, where he sees the greatest opportunity.
Gord Lovegrove, an associate professor at the UBC School of Engineering in Kelowna, says on the one hand that the technology has already proven itself in Europe.
On the other hand, the hydrogen Train de Charlevoix is a demonstration that has yet to pass through the hurdle to be accepted by Canadian regulators.
And Canada has other challenges, he said: ramping up green hydrogen production (most of the country’s hydrogen is produced from methane), cutting costs, improving hydrogen storage and transportation technology to make it more efficient and easier to handle and training personnel to maintain hydrogen-powered vehicles.
“It’s not that hard,” he said, “but it has to be done.”
Lovegrove is currently working on a hydrogen locomotive in partnership with Southern Railway of British Columbia. He hopes to begin component testing this summer and have it in full commercial service next summer.