Province to look at hydrogen-powered GO trains, but it is it simply hot air?

IMG_0268-001Electrification for GO Transit and UP Express has been proposed for years

At GO Transit’s Willowbrook Maintenance Centre in Mimico today, the Ontario Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca,  announced the start of the transit project assessment process (TPAP) that will allow GO to move forward with its plans for electrification. GO RER, the $13.5-billion regional rail network plan, is dependent on a new fleet of electric trainsets to provide rapid transit across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

But Del Duca introduced a new twist to the plot. Along with the electrification TPAP, the province will also look into the feasibility of hydrogen-powered trains. Hydrogen-powered trains are being tested in Germany by Alstom, a French rail manufacturer.

Quoted in the Toronto Star, Del Duca said that “this is a decision that we’re making that will have to last for a generation and beyond, so we want to make sure that we’re at the leading edge of the technology.”

The Alstom experimental train, a Cordelia LINT, is a similar model to the one used in Ottawa for the O-Train Trillium Line, a diesel light rail operation. The hydrogen-powered model has yet to be tested in revenue service; hydrogen propulsion also has yet to be tested on heavier rail equipment. The Cordelia LINTs are light rail vehicles, and under current railway regulations, cannot share the same tracks with heavier freight and passenger trains.

My fear is that this is yet another distraction from transportation needs in the here and now. Further, I worry that the “fuel cell technology symposium” will not only distract from the GO RER project, it will give credence to NIMBYs opposing electrification – be it the construction of gantries and overhead wires, or those worried about the effects of electromagnetism.

I have more faith in building sound, tested and true, transit systems than pursuing the newest technology there is. Electric trains have been around for over 100 years. Electric multiple unit regional rail as we know it is used in scores of cities worldwide, including Montreal, New York, and Philadelphia. Electric multiple unit trains (EMUs), which can be purchased from at least a half-dozen firms, are reliable, quick, and suitable for GO RER.

The provincial government has an unfortunate history of promoting new technologies that end either in failure — the 1970s-era GO-ALRT plans, for example, or the promotion of Ontario-made compressed natural gas (CNG) buses to replace electric trolley buses in Toronto and Hamilton in the early 1990s. (Those buses were either scrapped early, or converted to conventional diesel propulsion.) The Scarborough RT, originally planned as the nucleus of a conventional light rail network, was replaced by a propitiatory linear induction system heavily promoted by the province.

The idea of hydrogen-powered trains is attractive: they have zero at-source emissions; the Alstom train is train is exceptionally quiet, and only emits steam and condensed water. Electrification requires overhead gantries and wires, along with substations at regular intervals; hydrogen-powered trains require none of these expenses. What isn’t clear is whether hydrogen powered trains offer the other advantages of electric train operation, namely quick acceleration and deceleration needed for a frequent-stop regional rail service.

I want GO RER to be built, and I want it to be built right. I just fear that the attention given to an emerging technology will be yet another distraction, especially going into an election year.

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5 Responses to Province to look at hydrogen-powered GO trains, but it is it simply hot air?

  1. Lloyd Alter says:

    It is total hot air. The only source of hydrogen right now is when it is stripped from natural gas, they might as well run a natural gas train, but it wouldnt sound as nice. Or they could make it with electricity, which is why the nuclear industry loves hydrogen. It is a totally inefficient way of pretending that you are going electric without wires by using the world’s stupidest battery, which is all hydrogen is.

  2. Steve says:

    As memory serves, one of the big problems with natural gas is that the impurities really screw up batteries, and it’s vital that the “hydrogen” produced from it be pure. This adds to the extraction cost and complexity.

  3. JW says:

    Interesting proposal, well worth studying, especially given the very high price-tag of installing overhead wires on all lines (the Alstom train was developed for non-electrified lines currently served by diesel-electric trains). The intention here would be to produce H2 from off-peak electricity (nuclear power plants are ill-equipped to follow demand; wind power is often not produced on-peak), which could add short-term and longer-term grid-balancing services. Technically feasible, but economically not necessarily (conversion losses play a big role).
    Mississauga’s Hydrogenics is supplying the fuel cells for Alstom in Germany, as far as I know. They also produce PEM electrolyzers.

    Lloyd, I like your building-related columns, but here you don’t know what you are talking about. This isn’t fusion.

  4. When electric trains debuted, the US Constitution was a century old and WWI was a score of years in the future. If this logic had prevailed in 1879, electric would never have appeared and we’d still be using good old reliable steam.

    The cost penalty for legacy electrification is often mentioned as $US 10 million per mile if civil engineering (bridge height, approached lengthened) costs are considered.

    Comfort is valuable. But not ‘at any price.’

    • Thanks for your comment. But the question remains: is it fair to hold up plans for electrification, which we know will serve the needs of GO RER for a technology that’s still in its infancy? So far, it is working on a light rail vehicle, but yet to be tested in revenue service.

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