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100% hydrogen passenger trains are up and running in Germany

A regional train operator in Germany has become the first rail company to utilise 100% hydrogen fuel cells. Could Alstom quickly become trailblazers for a cleaner industry?

While diesel locomotives continue to spew toxic nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a regional train operator in Germany is releasing purely water vapour.

That’s thanks to a new fleet of trains which run entirely on hydrogen. Situated between the lower Saxony towns of Cuxhaven and Buxtehude, regional rail company LNVG is using trains purchased from French transport firm Alstom – all of which are kitted out with its green technology.

This represents a huge milestone for the industry: the first entirely emission free railway journey.

Instead of a smokestack burning diesel, these passenger trains use hydrogen fuel cells to generate power. Placed on the roof of one of the cabs, this device filters in oxygen and combines it with hydrogen to make hydrogen oxide. As previously mentioned, the only by-product is harmless water vapour.

Alstom’s blue locomotives, which are pleasingly plastered in ‘H’ and ‘O’ to celebrate this ecological feat, aren’t just pushing boundaries in an environmental sense either. There are many practical benefits to ditching oil (and electricity hybrids) for hydrogen.

Around half of all rail lines in Europe have already been electrified, but fitting trains with the necessary wiring to run purely on electricity has been too costly to break out at scale. Hybrids are more popular, but critically do not remove fossil fuels from the process.

Using hydrogen cells, Alstom’s trains can travel some 1,000km (621 miles) before the tanks even need to be refilled. This comfortably allows each vehicle to sprawl back and forth for an all-day service without needing a top up. Impressive, eh?

Besides the obvious coups of preventing carbon dioxide spilling into the air, and ridding stations of harmful nitrous oxide fumes, using hydrogen is said to be far less taxing on the ears.

‘It’s far less noisy,’ says Bruno Marguet of Alstom, who explained that hydrail power runs almost silently compared to the violent chugging of fossil fuel engines.

Credit: Alstom

In terms of overall capacity, the LNVG line is currently operating five of these swanky blue locomotives and is quickly planning to add nine more – as soon as its diesel predecessors are phased out, anyway.

On that front, the company is hoping this can be achieved sooner rather than later.

‘We will not buy any more diesel trains, in order to do even more to combat climate change,’ Carmen Schwable, an LNVG spokesperson told DW. ‘We are convinced that diesel trains will no longer be economically viable in future,’ she says.

In the meantime, Alstom is reportedly working to expand its influence throughout Germany. Encouragingly, rail companies in Italy and France are also keen to partner up, and preliminary talks with North American rail owners are underway.

Given the costly nature of electrifying railways, and our need to find solutions rapidly before 2030, the obvious solution may conveniently be the cheapest.