All aboard North America’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train
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Jul 11, 2023
Mehanaz Yakub

Tourists can catch a ride on the hydrogen fuel cell-powered train during a four-month demonstration project between Quebec City and Baie-Saint-Paul. But Canada has the capacity for more zero-emission trains

The hydrogen train is a North American first. It’s known as the Coradia iLint and was built by Alstom, a leading French manufacturer specializing in smart and sustainable mobility solutions. Photo: Alstom

Tourists can catch a ride on the hydrogen fuel cell-powered train during a four-month demonstration project between Quebec City and Baie-Saint-Paul

This summer a passenger train, powered by green hydrogen, is operating on the Réseau de Charlevoix railway network in Quebec City.

The hydrogen train is a North American first. Alstom, a leading French manufacturer specializing in smart and sustainable mobility solutions, built the train, known as Coradia iLint.

“If we want to displace fossil fuel — if we want to give ourselves an alternative to diesel — the industry needs to know what are the options,” says Eric Rondeau, head of the Alstom’s Innovation Centre in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

The Coradia iLint is already in use in Germany and eight other European countries.

“Our train in Germany — the one that we brought here — has been running since 2018,” says Rondeau, adding that the hydrogen train operated efficiently and received support from local authorities and the ecosystem in Europe.

Alstom’s decision to introduce a hydrogen train to North America follows the launch of its Innovation Centre in Sain-Bruno-de-Montarville, Que, last year. The Innovation Centre focuses on accelerating the transition to cleaner rail transportation by developing hybrid, battery, or green hydrogen propulsion platforms.

To replicate Coradia iLint’s European success in North America, Alstom opted to launch a demonstration project to prove the technology’s viability.

In June, the Coradia iLint completed its first 90-kilometre journey from Montmorency Falls in Quebec City through the UNESCO-listed Charlevoix Biosphere Reserve to Baie-Saint-Paul, on the privately owned Réseau de Charlevoix railway line.

The train will operate commercially until the end of September.

Testing green hydrogen technology

As part of the demonstration project, Alstom is looking to better assess the development of hydrogen propulsion technology and its penetration into the North American market.

According to Alstom, hydrogen propulsion can be “especially useful in places where the cost of upgrading electric and catenary [overhead lines] rail infrastructure — with electrification, for example — is going to take longer or be more expensive because of the size and low population density of the area and miles of tracks that need upgrading.”

The Coradia iLint train runs on about 50 kilograms of hydrogen every day. Hydrogen fuel cell technology uses hydrogen to generate electrical energy to propel movement. It operates quietly and emits only water vapour and condensation.

To facilitate the demonstration project, Alstom secured support from key stakeholders, including the Government of Quebec, Chemin de fer Charlevoix, Train de Charlevoix, Harnois Énergies, HTEC Québec and Accelera by Cummins.

Harnois Énergies is producing green hydrogen (that is: hydrogen made by renewable or low carbon energy sources) at its Quebec City station. High-pressure tanks will then transport the hydrogen to Baie St-Paul.

Ontario’s Accelera is responsible for providing the fuel cell, while HTEC Québec will offer technical support for train storage and refuelling.

Meanwhile, the Quebec government has invested $3 million in the project, which has a total cost of $8 million.

This investment aligns with Quebec’s Green Economy 2030 initiative. The plan aims to reduce carbon emissions using green hydrogen in sectors where electrification is not feasible.

“Alstom’s demonstration project will open up a promising avenue in terms of reducing GHG emissions and will contribute to the development of technological innovations that can be marketed and extended to other players in railway operations,” said Quebec’s Environment Minister Benoit Charette in a press statement from February.

Alstom’s vision for the future

Once the demonstration project wraps up in September, Alstom hopes to expand its technology to a larger scale.

“We certainly intend to have options and grow in many places where people feel that they need this zero-emission transport in places that are currently mostly running on fossil fuel,” says Rondeau.

There are a number of rail corridors where hydrogen trains would be suitable, adds Rondeau, such as in Alberta and parts of the U.S.

However, before hydrogen trains can be rolled out in these areas, Alstom’s train will need to meet the certification requirements for operating on public Canadian railways alongside other trains. The existing Coradia iLint train operates on a private rail network, which is why it’s permitted to run during the demonstration project.

And at the Innovation Centre, Alstom is working on other projects that will replace diesel rail propulsion.

Rondeau highlights that progress in the hydrogen industry depends on innovation in regulations, the availability of diverse market options and technological advancements.

“Alstom is one part of that technology, but the ecosystem and the regulators need to be following if you want to make hydrogen available,” says Rondeau.

Hydrogen-powered trains across Canada

While Coradia iLint may be the first hydrogen passenger train in Canada, it’s not the only example of the fuel type’s rail application.

Calgary-based Canadian Pacific released an image in October 2021 of its prototype of a Hydrogen Zero Emissions Locomotive with the retrofit of an existing diesel-electric linehaul locomotive. By November 2022, CP started testing its fuel cell-powered freight locomotive in Calgary.

Meanwhile, in 2021, the Southern Railway of B.C. partnered with Loop Energy and Hydrogen in Motion to convert a diesel-electric switcher locomotive to hydrogen-electric, using Loop’s 50kw eFlow fuel cell system and H2M’s low-pressure solid-state hydrogen storage tank.

“Different options are becoming part of the conversation and the industry is stepping up at large — not only Alstom. The industry and the engineering firms are building up capacity for hydrogen,” says Rondeau.

“We need to facilitate the adoption and realize that it can work now. We need to bring the economic viability of hydrogen supply and hydrogen propulsion into a zone that will be able to replace or match the cost of operating diesel.”

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