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German railway firm ushers in new era for hydrogen trains

Godehard Weyerer Bremervörder, Germany
December 13, 2022

A railway company from the northern German town of Bremervörde has become the first in the world to operate a fleet of hydrogen trains in regular operation. Will it be the first of many around the globe?

A hydrogen train runs on a track on a sunny day
German hydrogen trains are attracting global attentionImage: Sina Schuldt/dpa/picture alliance

Christoph Grimm puts on his yellow Hi-Vis vest and leaves his office. Outside, in front of the newly renovated old train station of the Bremervörder-Osterholz railway, a hydrogen workshop is being built.

He enthuses that his company recently celebrated a world premiere. They now have six hydrogen-powered trains running regularly between different cities in the region, replacing conventional diesel trains in the process. Thanks to a fuel cell, the trains can drive completely emission-free.

"All relevant drive components such as tank and fuel cells are on the roof of hydrogen trains," he explains. In diesel vehicles, the units are located under the vehicle floor. "That requires a completely different maintenance concept, hence the new building."

World's first hydrogen train fleet

The Elbe-Weser Railroad Company (EVB), of which Grimm is the managing director, is the successor to regional railway lines and three private railway companies. For more than 40 years, the company has been keeping rail traffic running in the region, but the hydrogen-powered trains are now the pride of the EVB fleet.

The EVB, which also provides container train routes between northern German seaports and southern Germany, counts the state of Lower Saxony and the districts and various cities from the region as its shareholders.

A hydrogen train
The hydrogen train fleet has become the pride of the Elbe-Weser Railroad CompanyImage: Eisenbahnbetriebe Weser-Ems

Having the world's first hydrogen-powered train fleet in service in the region is mainly due to the fact that train manufacturer Alstom is based in the nearby town of Salzgitter. The EVB's route network was a good fit too for the operation of hydrogen trains as it is not electrified.

However, the EVB's hydrogen train project relied heavily on government support to make it through its early stages. Fuel cells are very expensive. The Lower Saxony Regional Transport Company, which oversees transportation in the federal state by the same name, donated €81 million ($85 million) for the purchase of the trains.

The money comes from the federal government's 'National Hydrogen Strategy' funding pot. One of the new trains is actually always in the workshop hall because hydrogen tanks and fuel cells have to be checked and serviced regularly. For the time being, maintenance work will be carried out in the company's regular workshop.

"The hydrogen combines with the ambient air; hydrogen and oxygen become water," Markus Rech, responsible for technology and maintenance at the EVB, told DW. This chemical reaction releases energy, which the fuel cell emits as an electrical current. "When such a vehicle is parked at the station or drives by, you can see the steam coming out from the top," Rech said.

World's first hydrogen train runs in Germany

First gray hydrogen, then green hydrogen

The hydrogen trains are refueled at an specially built filling station. Two tons of hydrogen are stored there. The hydrogen comes from the nearby city of Stade. "Stade is an important location for the chemical industry," Grimm told DW. "The hydrogen is produced there as a by-product."

Breaking down water into its individual chemical elements of hydrogen and oxygen consumes an enormous amount of electricity. If hydrogen is obtained using energy from gas or coal-fired power plants, as is the case at the industrial site in Stade, it is called gray hydrogen.

CO2 emissions will ultimately only be reduced if the electricity for the electrolysis comes from renewable energy sources. This is expected to take another four years. Then, wind turbines will be rotating next to the hydrogen-filling station in Bremervörde and photovoltaic fields will be installed.

Grimm says the property was originally purchased as a precaution during the construction of the hydrogen filling station. The electrolysis plant that is planned there would then only feed in green electricity.

Global demand for hydrogen trains

The hydrogen train, which is being serviced in the hall, has a 130-kilogram (287-ounce) tank and a fuel cell for each train segment. The train can travel around 800 kilometers (497 miles) per day in regular traffic. Alstom oversees the maintenance of its trains on the Bremervörde premises.

An important question now is where new sales markets for hydrogen trains may open worldwide. On entire continents, — North America, for example — electrical overhead lines are an absolute exception. Some companies looking to go green can therefore choose to go electric or go with hydrogen trains, suggests Grimm.

By next summer, all 14 trains so far ordered by Grimm's company should be in operation, replacing the diesel trains on the Weser-Elbe railway network.

In 2023, some local rail lines in the Frankfurt area will be converted to hydrogen, confirms Grimm. There is also foreign interest: the Irish Minister for Transport and a delegation from Australia have announced that they will be visiting Bremervörde in the coming days.

The article was originally published in German.

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