Hydrogen trains in the United Kingdom? "Ambitious" does not even cover it

Hydrogen-powered transport has been around for some time, and in the automotive industry, the main players are investing in green technology. But the trains powered by hydrogen in the British railways? I'll believe it when I see it!

This week, details emerged about a project in the United Kingdom called Hydroflex. It was exhibited at an event in the West Midlands and was born out of a partnership between the railway rolling stock company, Porterbrook and the Railway Research Center of the University of Birmingham. The idea is to create passenger trains powered by hydrogen and with zero emissions to replace the current line of diesel trains that run throughout the country today.

The benefits are obvious. Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, which feeds the engine and water, which is released in the form of steam. That is a major improvement, for example, a diesel engine that emits carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulates and nitrogen oxides, all of which are pollutants and major reasons why our planet is dying.

The Hydroflex test train aims to become the first hydrogen-powered train in the UK when it starts testing the main line in March 2020. There are only two other active services in the world, both in Germany. The French manufacturer of trains behind trains, Alstom, argues that the rail industry needs to be greener. But is this really the way to go? I'm not so sure.

The problem with hydrogen fuel cells.

At this time there is a small arms race in the electric mobility industry. Two emerging technologies are being developed, and the question of whether there is room for both of them to flourish is being asked more and more. A battery of fuel versus hydrogen battery, these are the two green technologies that fight to feed us from A to B. What is Betamax and what is VHS?

The argument comes and goes. For now, it seems to me that those who use lithium-ion batteries are leading the race. Companies like Tesla have achieved worldwide fame and have become symbols of status for the rich. In Europe, manufacturers such as BMW and Volkswagen are investing money in this technology and see it as the future of their products. However, criticisms about how green vehicles are kept on battery. Concerns about the resources needed to manufacture the batteries and the elimination of those that are dead continue to persist.

Hydrogen fuel cells, on the other hand, are being backed by fewer major automotive companies, but the money keeps coming. The Hyundai Motor Group is perhaps one of the strongest advocates of hydrogen energy, as it pumps around $ 7 billion in research and development. as well as the construction of new factories. The Achilles heel of hydrogen fuel cells remains safe. Earlier this month, a hydrogen refueling station in Norway exploded and took two people to the hospital.

The problem with the British rail network.

If we go back to Alstom, the only company that has put into operation hydrogen-powered trains, and this idea that getting people to switch from one car to another is a key part of making ecological train travel a reality. I can tell you that this is not going to be easy in the United Kingdom.

Since the privatization of British Rail in the 1990s, confidence in the nation's rail network has weakened. The fragmented network is now managed, for profit, by different private companies in different regions. It's the same old story. The rates increase while the service decreases.

A European rail performance index published in 2017 placed Great Britain behind Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Austria, Sweden and France in the performance of their rail systems. Less than 40% of the network was electrified in January 2018 (more than 60% of the network in Poland is for comparison). In 2015, the United Kingdom has around six times fewer kilometers of tracks dedicated to high-speed travel than Germany, 10 times less than France, 15 times less than Spain.

In short, the British do not trust the train network. Christian Wolmar, a rail historian, told the Financial Times in 2018: "It is very difficult for people to travel and not suffer cracks in the system, everything from knowing who to buy a ticket to the signaling failure that delays the train until the lack of information when the train is canceled ".

Then there is the issue of size. The Victorians in England were far ahead of other parts of Europe, then built the first rail networks, but built them small. According to Alstom's Mike Muldoon, getting hydrogen tanks that can last a whole day on trains small enough to run on the network is a challenge.

Therefore, there are major hurdles to overcome if we are going to see passenger trains powered by hydrogen in the UK in the coming years. I hope it happens, but I'm still skeptical. Going from the current situation to the delivery of a new and elegant network of trains powered by hydrogen seems to me a leap. You must learn to run before you can walk, as they say ...

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