Germany: World’s first fleet of hydrogen trains on track


GermanyThe world’s first fleet of hydrogen trains on the route

The first railway line to be operated entirely with hydrogen will be inaugurated in northern Germany on Wednesday. It has 14 trains, a step towards rail decarbonization.

Trains will be replaced on the route through Bremerhaven.

AFP / Illustrative Photo

Germany on Wednesday inaugurates a fully hydrogen-powered railway line, a “world first” and a major step forward for rail decarbonization, despite the supply challenges of this innovative technology.

A fleet of 14 trains, supplied by France’s Alstom to the Lower Saxony (North) region, will replace the current diesel locomotives on the hundred-kilometer route linking the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehud not far from Hamburg. “Thanks to hydrogen, passengers will be traveling on this route at any time of the day,” summarizes Stefan Wardrobe, project manager at Alstom, to AFP, who welcomes a “world first”.

Hydrogen trains are a preferred way to reduce CO2 emissions and replace diesel, which still powers 20% of journeys in Germany. They mix hydrogen on board with oxygen from the ambient air thanks to a fuel cell built into the roof. This generates the electricity needed to pull the train.


Designed in France in Tarbes (south) and assembled in Salzgitter (middle) in Germany, Alstom trains – christened Coradia iLint – are pioneers in this field. Commercial trials with the regular circulation of two hydrogen trains have been carried out on this line since 2018. The entire fleet is now adopting this technology.

The French group has signed four contracts for several dozen trains in Germany, France and Italy and sees no weakening in demand. In Germany alone, “between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains could be replaced by hydrogen,” estimates Stefan Wardrobe. “By 2035, around 15 to 20 percent of the regional European market could be operated with hydrogen,” confirms Alexandre Charpentier, railway expert at Roland Berger, to AFP.

Relevant for small lines

Hydrogen trains are particularly relevant for small regional routes where the cost of switching to electric is too high compared to the profitability of the connection. Around every second regional train in Europe currently runs on diesel.

Alstom’s competitors have also entered the race. With a view to commissioning from 2024, Deutsche Siemens presented a prototype train with Deutsche Bahn last May. But despite these attractive prospects, “there are real obstacles,” says the expert.

Because not only the trains thirst for hydrogen. The entire transport sector, road or air, but also heavy industry, especially steel and chemical industries, rely on this technology to reduce their CO2 emissions.

“95% from the conversion of fossil fuels”

Even though Germany announced an ambitious €7 billion plan in 2020 to become a leader in hydrogen technologies in a decade, the country – like across Europe – still lacks infrastructure, be it for production or transport, and requires colossal investments . “For this reason, we do not see a 100 percent replacement of diesel trains with hydrogen,” says Alexandre Charpentier.

In addition, hydrogen is not necessarily carbon-free: Only “green hydrogen”, produced with renewable energies, is considered sustainable in expert circles. There are other manufacturing methods that are much more common, but they emit greenhouse gases because they are made from fossil fuels.

Proof that the resource is missing: the Lower Saxony line is initially intended to use hydrogen as a by-product of certain industries such as chemistry. According to the French research institute IFP, which specializes in energy issues, hydrogen is currently “95 percent obtained from the conversion of fossil fuels, almost half of which from natural gas”.


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