Alstom’s 14 Coradia iLint hydrogen-electric passenger trains will ply a regional line between Buxtehude, outside Hamburg, and the beach town of Cuxhaven. Credit: Alstom.

Europe is in the midst of a rail revolution, and it involves hydrogen-powered trains.

According to reports in Fortune magazine and IntelligentTransport, the first hydrogen-powered passenger trains built by Alstom SA are coming to Germany and France, establishing a toehold for the technology in Europe.

After a lengthy trial period on a 123-kilometer (76-mile) track in Lower Saxony, Germany, commercial operations will begin next March, according to Carmen Schwabl, managing director at rail operator LNVG.

Alstom’s 14 Coradia iLint passenger trains will ply a regional line between Buxtehude, outside Hamburg, and the beach town of Cuxhaven, the report said.

The dual mode electric-hydrogen Coradia Polyvalent train will have an autonomous range of up to 600km along non-electrified track.

Each train will comprise four cars and measure 72m in length. It will come with 218 seats and exhibit the same dynamic performance as the company’s dual mode electric-diesel versions, Alstom confirms.

Sources say rival Siemens AG is also developing hydrogen trains and the European market is estimated to grow to tens of billions of dollars in the coming years as emissions rules get even tougher, the report said.

Whether anyone likes it or not, Europe is going to get greener — on every front of transportation.

While battery packs or power lines can also be used to electrify rail travel and cut pollution, this isn’t always a practical solution.

European Union lawmakers reached a deal this week to make the bloc’s ambitious climate goals legally binding, and stronger rules are expected to affect industries ranging from transport to energy production, the report said.

The region’s railways are on average only about 54% electrified and state-owned operators could face more pressure to replace polluting engines.

Each hydrogen-electric Alstom train will comprise of four cars and measure 72m in length. It will come with 218 seats and exhibit the same dynamic performance as the company’s dual mode electric-diesel versions. Credit: AFP photo.

“Europe will definitely be the main market,” Alstom CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge said last week during a company webinar, citing France, Germany, Italy and the UK as countries with large diesel fleets.

Fuel supply and infrastructure need to be expanded, he said, but “the trains are ready.”

Meanwhile, acting on behalf of the regions of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Grand Est and Occitanie, SNCF Voyageurs has placed an order with manufacturer Alstom for the first 12 dual mode hydrogen-electric trains in a contract worth a total of almost €190 million (US$229 million), IntelligentTransport reported.

“Environmental protection is a major issue and without doubt the greatest challenge of the 21st century,” said Laurent Wauquiez, President of the regional council of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.

“This order for the first Coradia trains in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is the next step in our region’s ambition to boost green growth focusing on innovation, business development and job creation.”

SNCF currently operates 1,100 regional express trains that use diesel fuel, and which it plans to phase out by 2035, the report said.

“Since our commitment to the European project Zero Emission Valley, we have aimed to make our region – home to almost all players in the hydrogen sector – one of the lowest carbon regions in Europe, by developing applications for this new source of energy,” said Wauquiez.

“Hydrogen trains are an innovative alternative to the diesel trains running on our non-electrified lines.”

There are substantial growth prospects for hydrogen trains in Europe, according to Morgan Stanley analysts.

They estimate that by mid-century, the sector could be worth between US$24 billion and US$48 billion. By 2030, trains running on hydrogen could make up one out-in-10 of those not already electrified, the report said.

Alstom expects more than 5,000 passenger trains running on diesel in Europe will have to be replaced by around 2035.

It also says a quarter of all trains in the region use the fuel and will have to retired by around mid-century to meet climate goals.

European nations are already pouring money into subsidies for companies developing battery and hydrogen technology for vehicles, the report said.

This could also be extended to the rail industry to replace diesel train engines.

“We will no longer buy any diesel units,” said LNVG’s Schwabl during the webinar. The railway operates 126 trains running on the fuel and is looking for alternatives.

In Austria, the federal railway OBB tested Alstom’s hydrogen train last year near Vienna and is evaluating how it compares with other systems for replacing diesel, Chief Technical Officer Mark Topal Goekceli said.

“For longer distances and areas where we need more power, hydrogen has an advantage,” he said. “It seems that battery trains could have an advantage for short distances, but we need to sort this out.”

The downside of hydrogen power is that it’s expensive to produce and the electricity needed generates a lot of carbon dioxide emissions or other pollutants.

Sources: Fortune Magazine, IntelligentTransport, RailwayNews, Agence France-Presse