Germany to acquire first hydrogen powered train

In December 2017, Germany will become the first country to have a long-distance passenger train line powered by hydrogen fuel cells, a development in keeping with its clean power conscious reputation. 

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Ruediger Grube, CEO of the German railway firm Deutsche Bahn (r.) and German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt pose next to a new ICE 4 high speed train of German railway operator Deutsche Bahn after the arrival at Hauptbahnhof main railway station in Berlin, Germany, in September.

Travelers in Germany will soon have the opportunity to be among the first people to ride on a passenger train powered by hydrogen energy, after Germany announced that hydrail "Coradia iLint" trains will operate on some German lines beginning in December 2017.

German officials hope that the trains will provide a sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative to diesel powered trains as Germany continues its push for clean energy and a diminished reliance on fossil fuels.

"Germany stands apart as a global leader in the industrialized world's push to limit fossil-fuel consumption," wrote The Christian Science Monitor’s David Unger in 2014. "Forging a stable path to a post-carbon economy would be a watershed moment in human history – not to mention a tremendous economic boon for whoever finds the way. But it will not be easy to shift off the coal, oil, and natural gas that have powered global economic development for centuries."

The trains’ French manufacturer, Alstom, introduced the "iLint" model at a Berlin trade show this week. The first train will run on the Buxtehude-Bremervörde-Bremerhaven-Cuxhaven line in December 2017. Railway Gazette reports that four German regions have ordered a total of 60 trains, and that orders for more are expected over the next year.

Alstom’s trains use a hydrogen tank and a fuel cell on the roof to convert hydrogen into clean power, emitting only water as a byproduct. The hydrail trains can quietly travel nearly 500 miles at a time, at a relatively brisk pace of 87 miles per hour.

The train manufacturer’s vice president for Germany and Austria also told the German news outlet Die Welt that they would provide a support system for the trains along hydrail routes, creating hydrogen plants as well as train cars.

While neither Germany’s commitment to clean power nor the rail industry’s interest in hydrogen are new, by putting them together in this way, Germany could become the catalyst for a rail industry breakthrough.

Most hydrail development thus far has occurred in the freight industry. In 2004, the Japanese Railway Research Institute developed a prototype fuel cell, and in 2006 it went into use. China has been using hydrogen to power trams since last year.

Alstom’s trains, however, will be the first to run long-distance routes on hydrogen power, in keeping with Germany’s status as a clean-power trendsetter.

And unlike many European countries that seek to use fewer fossil fuels, Germany has long expressed hopes to toss nuclear power aside after the Chernobyl explosion in Ukraine frightened people across Europe in 1986. As of 2014, Germany hoped to be nuclear-free by 2022, and use 80 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Germany's city of Freiburg has become a model for sustainable cities across Europe. Elsewhere in Germany, the sustainable energy industry has boomed, as Germans install solar panels on their roofs and farmers ferment manure for fuel.

A law passed in the Bundestag in 2000 requires utilities to pay companies and individuals a "tax" for clean energy that they feed into the grid, whether from rooftop solar panels or wind farms.

"There's no master plan which we could follow," Hubertus Bardt, head of energy and environment research at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research told the Monitor in 2014. "We're like a big research project, and we hope others can learn in the future and other countries can benefit."

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