Italian and German trains hitch up to hydrogen bandwagon

An artist's rendering of the new hydrogen train that will be used on Italian railways. [Photo: Alstom]

Rail operators in Italy and Germany are turning to hydrogen power in an attempt to make their train networks more environmentally friendly, with Deutsche Bahn, partnering up with Siemens, among the trailblazers.

Regional operator Ferrovie Nord Milano, the second largest train company in Italy, announced last week (26 November) that it has ordered six hydrogen-fuelled trains from French manufacturer Alstom, in an investment worth more than €160 million.

Due to enter service in 2023, the trains will replace diesel locomotives on the 100km-long line between Brescia and Iseo, which is not electrified. The trains will be built by Alstom in Italy.

Ferrovie Nord Milano intends to fuel the trains using hydrogen produced from steam methane reforming with carbon-capture systems attached – so-called ‘blue hydrogen’ – at a refuelling depot that should be built by 2023. The final plan is still under review.

The firm could also eventually deploy renewable energy to produce ‘green hydrogen’ and added in a statement that the fuel could also be used to power its bus fleet and by third-party logistic companies.

“We are immensely proud to be introducing hydrogen train technology to Italy,” said Alstom executive Gian Luca Erbacci. He added that the trains “have already proven themselves in commercial service in Germany”.

Lower Saxony began operating the world’s first hydrogen-powered passenger service in 2018, on a stretch of track that its rail operator said would be difficult and expensive to electrify.

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.

The regional rail firm has reported good results from the first two years of operation, prompting state-owned Deutsche Bahn to announce last week that it will team up with German manufacturer Siemens to develop its own hydrogen locomotive.

According to the plans, trials on the new train will start in 2024 in the state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany’s southwest. The ‘Mireo Plus H’ will be made up of two carriages, have a range of up to 600km and a top speed of around 150km per hour.

Deutsche Bahn will refit one of its existing maintenance shops to house the train during the trial period and it will be fuelled with green hydrogen at that depot.

Baden-Württemberg’s minister of transport, Winfried Hermann, said in a statement: “Especially on non-electrified routes, hydrogen fuel cell propulsion can become a climate-friendly alternative to diesel propulsion.”

“Whether powered by overhead line electricity or hydrogen – the decisive factor is that the energy comes from renewable sources,” he added.

Deutsche Bahn operates more than 1,300 diesel engines on regional lines – in 2019, only 61% of Germany’s rail network was electrified. The government has pledged to hit 70% by 2025 but progress has been slow since 2005, when 57% was electrified.

That means that Deutsche Bahn will have to turn increasingly to hydrogen and electric-battery trains to hit its target of climate-neutrality by 2050 and ambitious emissions-reduction goals for 2030.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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