Dutch test hydrogen train as EU alliance set to launch 

The world's first hydrogen fuel cell train on its way to Bremervörde, northern Germany, 16 September 2018. [Photo: EPA-EFE/DAVID HECKER]

The Netherlands wrapped up testing on its first foray into hydrogen train technology at the weekend, as the European Commission readies a strategy for the clean fuel that will debut on Tuesday (10 March).

French train maker Alstom completed 10 days of testing in the north of the country – between the cities of Groningen and Leeuwarden – as Dutch railways aim to follow its German counterpart in operating an all-hydrogen train service.

In September 2018, the world’s first purely hydrogen-powered passenger locomotive left the station in Lower Saxony and has served the Buxtehude-Cuxhaven line ever since. Alstom has been contracted to provide more trains as a result.

World’s first hydrogen train leaves station in Germany

The world’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train service began operating in Germany on Sunday (16 September), while EU ministers debated the future potential of the clean fuel at an informal summit in Austria this week.

Successful night tests in the Netherlands have moved the Dutch ambitions closer to fruition. Trains have been run at speed but without passengers, while refuelling was made possible by French energy firm Engie, which provided the green hydrogen.

“Groningen is the Netherlands’ testing ground for mobility. After the first self-driving train, now also the first hydrogen train!” Dutch environment minister Stientje v Veldhoven said at a public open day on Sunday (8 March).

Alstom’s Coradia iLint train is specifically designed for train lines that have not been or cannot be electrified. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity and the only byproduct is water.

The Coradia has a range of about 1,000km – which is the same distance a diesel train can go between fill-ups – and, as v Veldhoven pointed out, refuelling time is actually shorter for hydrogen when compared to diesel.

“The tests in the Netherlands demonstrate how our hydrogen train is mature in terms of availability and reliability, providing the same performance as traditional regional trains, but with the benefit of low noise and zero emissions,” said Alstom’s Bernard Belvaux.

Hydrogen could become a popular choice for branch line services – given the costs of installing overhead electrified lines – and next year’s proposed ‘Year of the Rail’ might be the perfect shop window for Alstom’s offering.

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Fill ‘er up

One of the main obstacles hydrogen power has to overcome is the cost of the fuel though. Green hydrogen is made by using renewable energy – like solar or wind – and prices are currently higher than ‘grey hydrogen’, which is produced using fossil fuels.

Plans are underway in Belgium and the Netherlands to utilise surplus offshore wind power to produce green hydrogen at scale but the projects are currently in the pilot phase.

That is why the EU will reveal its strategy for a “clean hydrogen alliance” on Tuesday alongside its long-awaited industrial roadmap. 

A previous leak of the strategy – obtained by EURACTIV – showed that the European Commission wants private-public partnerships to focus on using hydrogen in problem areas like steel production.

The EU executive wants to replicate the success of the European Battery Alliance, which has unlocked millions in investments since debuting in 2017, and hydrogen could benefit from a Brussels-approved framework that relaxes strict state aid rules.

Commissioners Frans Timmermans and Thierry Breton – who oversee climate and industrial policy, respectively – have both extolled the virtues of hydrogen during their first months in their new roles.

Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission’s interest in hydrogen is closely linked to its commitment to the EU’s climate-neutrality by 2050 objective, which will require major changes in the industrial and transport sectors.

The latter is responsible for about a quarter of the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions but, unlike other areas like energy production, its carbon footprint continues to grow.

Hydrogen has been identified as a potential silver bullet particularly in the heavy transport industry, for trucks, construction equipment and shipping, where electric battery power could struggle to provide a solution.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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