The great fiasco of hydrogen trains in Germany

Hydrogen trains were announced with much fanfare. The vehicles were to replace polluting diesel machines in the Frankfurt region of Germany. Today, they are mainly a source of problems for the local public transport company. Dismissal of drivers, replacement by diesel buses and locomotives, delayed deliveries: everything goes wrong.

Why is this important?

Can hydrogen be a good fuel? There is discussion about that. According to its proponents, H2 does not emit greenhouse gases (when used in a fuel cell) and it would be an option to replace the engines of trains, buses or even ships. According to the opponents, its production can be polluting and it would make no sense if it were produced in a clean way: then we might as well use renewable energy directly to charge the batteries of electric vehicles, they argue.

The facts: Many complications on the railway network in the Frankfurt region.

  • At the beginning of this year, trains had to be regularly replaced by buses, each time for periods of more than two weeks. It concerns problems with fuel supply, reports Wattissustainable, a website specializing in new energy sources.
  • This situation forces the public transport company Start to hire extra diesel locomotives to cope with the outage.
  • But there the following problem arises: the drivers have to undergo a lot of training to learn how to drive the new locomotives, in addition to their normal working hours. They had to learn to drive four different vehicles in a short time, the local medium reports Hessenschau.
    • Many drivers were not happy about this. Last week, a dozen train drivers resigned.
    • The result: in the past two weeks, many trips had to be canceled due to staff shortages. Often this even happened at the last minute when a driver fell ill.
    • The company assures that they have already found replacements and that the performance will be more reliable from now on.

Review: Also a problem with the trains.

  • The existing failing trains are only part of the problem. The absent trains also make it complicated.
  • Start had ordered 27 trains – they would have the largest fleet of hydrogen trains in the world. Alstom was awarded the public tender (worth €500 million) in 2020. They should all be in service by the end of 2022, but in the end only two trains were running on the network by then.
    • Out of the company’s four lines operated, only one line is currently covered with hydrogen trains.
  • So far, according to Hessenschau only 11 trains delivered. The rest is still waiting and Alstom continues to delay delivery. According to the latest news, delivery is scheduled for the third quarter.

Technical specifications: The trains have a range of 1,000 kilometers with two hydrogen tanks with a combined weight of 250 tons. They have a top speed of 140 kilometers per hour and can accommodate 160 passengers.

The detail: Ecological?

  • The diesel locomotives will therefore continue to run on the network (in addition to the additional diesel locomotives that are being used), while the hydrogen trains that are to replace them have not yet arrived. That is a primary source of pollution.
  • In addition, the hydrogen used, produced by the local chemical industry, is not “green”, emphasizes Watti.
    • As a reminder, green hydrogen is produced via electrolysis using renewable energy. But hydrogen can also be obtained from heated methane, which is a very polluting method.
  • The specialist website wonders whether it would not be more sensible to use rechargeable battery trains to replace diesel vehicles, especially for short distances such as in Frankfurt. The traditional train, powered by overhead wires, is even more efficient, but installing a fully wired network is costly, the website admits. However, companies could also consider not providing the entire network with overhead wires and leaving parts without cables where the train can run using the battery, Watti suggests.

The failure of hydrogen trains is not a direct disqualification – almost all new technologies have start-up problems – but these start-up problems should serve as a lesson for other rail operators who are considering hydrogen trains as an alternative to installing overhead wires. The hydrogen infrastructure is not that simple either.


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