The government plans to run 35 hydrogen trains under its ‘Hydrogen for Heritage’ project, railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw recently told Rajya Sabha. Besides the Shimla trains, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway are also on its list, and trials of a prototype hydrogen train are likely to start between Jind and Sonipat in Haryana soon.
Why is this significant? Well, running trains is not rocket science but running them on hydrogen is. Fuel cells – the devices that combine pure hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity and water– were first used on spaceships in the 1960s.
Nasa’s Apollo command modules used fuel cells to generate up to 2300 watts of electricity (enough to run a microwave oven), and the astronauts used the resultant water for drinking. The fuel cell was such a crucial invention that US President Richard Nixon told its inventor Francis Thomas Bacon of Cambridge University: “Without you, we would not have gotten to the moon. ”
A Versatile Device
A nifty device like the fuel cell was bound to find other uses on Earth. In 1999, the First National Bank of Omaha installed a fuel cell system to power its new data centre that had faced a crippling power outage a year earlier. Each hour of downtime had cost $6 million. An independent analysis in 2009 showed the centre never suffered a system shutdown in the 10 years that fuel cells were used.
In April 2003, Iceland started running three hydrogen fuel cell buses in Reykjavik. When the pilot programme ended in August 2005, the buses had run 89,000km on 17,300kg of hydrogen and saved 58,000 litres of diesel.
Fuel cell cars from Toyota, Honda and Hyundai followed, and while they have been eclipsed by batteryelectric vehicles, especially those from Elon Musk’s Tesla, the game is far from over. Meanwhile, the fuel cell action has shifted to trains, where these cells have an edge over batteries.
Phasing Out Diesel
Europe took the lead in fuel cell trains when Germany rolled out a French-built train in September 2018. Since then, the German state of Lower Saxony has added five such trains and it intends to phase out all 126 of its diesel trains within a few years. Frankfurt, another German city, has ordered 27 hydrogen trains for its metropolitan region. France has announced it will buy 12 and the northern Lombardy region of Italy is buying six. Canada, the US, UK, Australia, and China are also in the race now.
Why are railways around the developed world inducting fuel cell trains? It’s to cut out emissions from their diesel-powered trains. In Germany, for example, about 13,000km of railway track, which is 40% of the total, is not electrified and operates on diesel. Similarly, in France, about 45% of the railway network is not electrified and there are more than 1,200 diesel trains.
In India, which has the world’s third largest railway network, 37% of the trains are pulled by diesel locomotives, Vaishnaw had told Rajya Sabha in December 2021. That’s roughly 5,000 trains a day. Indian Railways used 2. 3 billion litres of diesel to haul trains in FY 2019-20 – almost 6. 5 million litres a day.
While many of these diesel locomotives could be replaced with conventional electric locomotives in the years ahead, some routes might not have enough traffic to justify building and maintaining catenary systems. Or, the terrain might not be suitable for this infrastructure, as is the case on the Kalka-Shimla route.
That’s where hydrogen fuelled locomotives can make a difference. They are clean, efficient and powerful like electric motors but do not require a network of poles and overhead wires.
Of course, building a supply chain for hydrogen is a huge challenge, but the Alstom trains used in Germany have a range of 1,000km, so they need refuelling only once a day. And unlike battery-electric vehicles that take hours to charge, filling hydrogen takes only a few minutes. Each 130kg tank on the Alstom trains can be filled in 15 minutes.
Even though range anxiety is not a concern, news reports say the 97km Kalka-Shimla line will have hydrogen stations at Kalka, Barog and Shimla.
Green hydrogen, which is made with renewable energy, costs far more than diesel at present, and hydrogen locomotives are about 30% costlier than diesel locomotives. In India, the cost of converting each train to run on hydrogen will be about Rs 80 crore, minister Vaishnaw said.
Yet, Germany is likely to replace 2,500-3,000 diesel locomotives altogether, France has decided to phase out all its diesel locomotives in the next 10 years, and the UK will do so by 2040. The main reason is to reduce air pollution and global warming, but it is likely to prove economical too.
Although hydrogen is costly, 1kg of hydrogen replaces 4. 5 litres of diesel. And the price of green hydrogen is expected to fall sharply by 2030. Also, the service and maintenance costs of hydrogen trains are likely to be lower, reports say.