Hydrogen fuel cell technology is maturing in the rail sector, heralding the beginning of the decarbonisation of the entire industry. Andreas Frixen explains how we got here and where we're going next.
Andreas Frixen is Product Director for Green Rail Solutions. Within the Regional Platform, he is responsible for Alstom's first hydrogen and battery trains, anticipating the future needs of customers and following all current projects and tenders. In his spare time, he enjoys music, photography and travelling. Andreas, who lives in Germany, fondly remembers his time in Australia and looks forward to visiting the country again in the near, post-Covid future.
What does the imminent delivery of 14 Coradia iLint trains to German operator LNVG mean for the rail industry?
This is truly a big step forward, a step towards the future of emission-free and sustainable transportation solutions. Hydrogen fuel cell trains enter commercial operation in 'serial' mode for the first time and these Coradia iLint trains will operate for the next 30 years.
The beauty of hydrogen technology is that operators can run trains the same way they did before – 'dropping out' of diesel. Diesel trains run more than 600 or 800 kilometers per day and refuel at the end of the day. You can also do this with a hydrogen train. You do not need to make any infrastructure changes; Instead of diesel you need a hydrogen refueling station.
Our hydrogen-powered Coradia iLint is currently in series production in Germany for two customers. Tell us more about the latest developments.
We learned a lot from the operation of the two pre-series trains and transferred our experience to the new serial trains. For example, we improved traction performance and passenger experience, especially acceleration, and made trains more comfortable with better air conditioning and connectivity.
Maintenance is a focus, and together with our fuel cell supplier we have developed fuel cells to both improve performance and reduce maintenance hours. Energy management has been improved overall, optimizing the cooperation between the fuel cell, the battery, as well as the traction and auxiliary system.
What were the success factors in making the Coradia iLint the first hydrogen-powered passenger train in commercial service?
Going back in history, we were thinking about the future of diesel trains in 2014 and it was already clear that there is a demand for reducing emissions and more sustainable transport solutions. Our experts started exploring different technology possibilities and we saw that hydrogen could be a viable solution. Some of our main customers really liked the idea of finding an alternative, so they kept us motivated. There was an innovative political environment in Germany then and still today, and we were supported by the government.
We were able to present it in 2016. train in the first pre-series Innotrans. Public transport companies liked it, and we signed letters of intent with four PTAs saying that if we develop such a train, they would be interested in buying it. This has really helped us make progress. Then there was the dedication of the development team itself. This small team wanted to do something sustainable, revolutionary if you want, or something like the 'railway revolution'. All this has led to our success today.
What are the advantages of Coradia iLint and hydrogen extraction?
The first and most obvious fact is that this is a zero-emissions train with no harmful emissions. The only exhaust it has is water and water vapor. This gives fuel cell trains a real advantage over diesel trains. There is also no internal combustion engine compared to diesel trains, which means you have much less noise emissions and no vibrations. This benefits not only the operator but also the passengers on board.
There is another technology that can be used on non-electrified lines: the battery train. Hydrogen fuel cell and battery technologies complement each other and there is a market for both. Battery strings are more suitable for shorter unpowered segments or networks with partial electrification, while the hydrogen fuel cell train is a good solution for lines and networks with longer segments without electrification. The Coradia iLint has a range of 1.000 kilometers, so it can run for a day or two without refueling, but battery trains need to be charged more regularly during operation. It is a matter of which technology best suits the customer's needs.
Before the summer, Coradia iLint completed successful promotions – which country is next?
The Czech Republic and Slovakia were last. We had a very extensive program running trains in different locations and countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Poland and Austria – great interest from many cities and publics. It was a mix of demonstration runs – short events – and real passenger operations, which states or states watched to see if Coradia iLint was a viable solution to replace diesel trains.
If you show people that the train is running in their own network, in their own city, they will believe it. While there, they believe it works. With a new technology, people need to see and experience it to know it works and is safe.
We have more showings in planning starting with a major operation in Canada. Then again operations in France and possibly operations in Greece. We are also preparing two or three years of operation of both pre-series trains in a private network in western Germany.