All Aboard the Hydrogen Train

Trains have long been one of the cleaner forms of transport. In the race to achieve climate targets, the industry for hydrogen trains is steaming ahead, and the IEC is providing the standards.

hydrogen train

There’s no doubt that trains are one of the more sustainable forms of transport. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), trains carry 8% of the world’s passengers and 7% of global freight transport, but use only 2% of total transport energy demand. In fact, electric rail, which emits zero carbon, accounts for more than 85% of passenger trains and 55% of freight trains.

But electric trains have a number of drawbacks, namely the cost of electric wires and substations, which can be prohibitive in regions with geographical challenges such as mountainous areas. Hydrogen-powered trains, however, offer a promising way to reduce emissions from rail as they require less infrastructure and hydrogen fuel cells can travel for longer on a single charge.

According to Enrico Morelli, expert in hydrogen technologies and convenor of several IEC working groups within the IEC Technical Committee for railways, TC 9, the world’s first hydrogen train went for a record 1 175 kms without needing to be refueled, far longer than the average battery-powered train.

“Hydrogen is a good option for long-distance trains and for trains in regions where there are a lot of geographical complexities such as tunnels or bridges, making electrification of the lines prohibitively expensive,” he said.

As a result, there is a growing number of projects to build hydrogen-powered trains around the world, mainly in developed countries.

In 2018, the world’s first commercial hydrogen-powered trains began operations in the Lower Saxony region of Germany. After several years of testing, 14 hydrogen-powered trains were officially commissioned in 2022, at a cost to the German government of EUR 85 million. Now there are 41 other hydrogen-powered trains currently in service in the Frankfurt region.

In France, rail operator SNCF ordered 12 hydrogen trains which are expected be trialed this year with the aim of carrying passengers by the end of 2025.

In Italy, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport has pledged EUR 300 million for a new programme to replace diesel trains with hydrogen ones across the country.

Testing of Japan’s first hydrogen hybrid train called Hybari is underway, with the aim of it being run commercially by 2030. Other countries such as Chile and India also have plans to put hydrogen-powered trains into action, while China has, for some time, already been using hydrogen trams.

High-speed hydrogen trains are also in the pipeline. A consortium of 10 Spanish companies are in the process of developing a high-speed train system fueled by hydrogen fuel cells and batteries.

Moving to lower carbon hydrogen

But the way hydrogen is produced has come under criticism in recent years, as the vast majority of hydrogen used is made through extracting it from hydrocarbon compounds such as gas, coal and petroleum. This process is far from environmentally friendly, emitting 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

The “low carbon” alternative is through electrolysis, whereby electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in a unit called an electrolyzer. Emissions are even lower if the electricity is produced from renewable energy sources.

What’s more, according to the IEA, with the costs of renewable energies such as solar PV and wind generation declining, “low carbon” hydrogen could end up being the low-cost option as well.

All of this is good news for the planet and for the people, but we’re not there yet. New technologies such as this require significant investment.

Regulators are recognizing this need. In the EU, for example, 22 countries plus Norway signed an agreement known as the “important projects of common European interest” (IPCEI) in the hydrogen sector known as the IPCEI Hy2Tech programme. Over the course of 2022, some 50 projects were granted over EUR 10 billion in public funding, which was expected to generate an additional EUR 15 billion in private investments.

Collaboration is key

Another key driver will be collaboration, emphasized Julien d’Arbigny, the IEC Convenor for the IEC TC 9 joint working group, JWG 51, for fuel cell systems for railway applications.

“Transportation sub-sectors would benefit from breaking down existing silos to work towards a common goal, such as the development of refuelling solutions. This could lead to the creation of refuelling hubs that also serve other hydrogen-powered vehicles, such as trucks or buses,” he said.

“In Germany, for example, the Höchst Industrie Park in Frankfurt houses a hydrogen filling station that enables hydrogen buses and rail cars to refuel. Such an ecosystem that involves all modes of transportation is necessary for driving innovation and investment in the hydrogen economy.”

International standards will be instrumental to this collaboration, and harmonization across the world, as they bring together international best practice to ensure reliability, performance, safety and provide a platform on which innovation can happen. By enabling interoperability, they can be powerful tools to accelerate the industry’s growth.

While there are international harmonized requirements for electric and diesel-powered trains to demonstrate, for instance, safety and performance, none exist for hydrogen. This means much time and energy is spent in undergoing testing and evaluating to different criteria to ensure components and systems are fit for purpose and safe.

IEC TC 9 is working on a series of standards to fill this gap. IEC 63341‑1 will define the requirements for the design of fuel cell power systems, while IEC 63341‑2 will cover hydrogen fuel systems, including the storage and distribution of hydrogen on a train. The third in the series, IEC 63341‑3, will detail performance requirements and test methods. The series will draw on the many other IEC Standards for fuel cells and hydrogen storage technologies with additional specific requirements for railway applications.

The standards will be a good start, but many more are needed. It is for this reason that international experts from rail (IEC TC 9) and hydrogen (ISO/TC 197/SC 1) have created two joint ad hoc groups, JAHG 52: Fuel container for rail, and JAHG 53: Fuel system components for rail, to define what standards are needed and create a roadmap for developing them.

Whether produced from fossil fuels or not, hydrogen remains a highly flammable gas and has to be used safely and efficiently. Since its inception, one of the four conformity assessment systems run by the IEC, IECEx (the IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Explosive Atmospheres) has been covering certification for equipment, services and competence of people in areas associated with hydrogen. IECEx oversees the compliance with international standards that address hydrogen safety, performance and interoperability, and its certification continues to be a valuable tool for facilitating hydrogen-related trade at national levels and across international markets.

IECEx has partnered with other international organizations, including ISO, with whom it has established a formal partnership relating to testing and certification in the area of hydrogen technologies. Since 2023, it has been issuing certificates to hydrogen dispensing equipment and systems. Its scheme for certification of personnel competencies (CoPC) has also been expanded to include additional units of competence dedicated to hydrogen safety.

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