Can hydrogen turn the rail industry green?

woman waiting for train
  • Insight
  • 5 Minute Read
  • November 10, 2023

Hydrogen-powered trains are likely to be crucial to transport decarbonisation. Can industry, policymakers and regulators work together to overcome the barriers to further innovation?

In 1800, scientists William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle discovered the process of electrolysis—running an electric current through water to produce hydrogen and oxygen. Their discovery later led physicist William Grove to invent the fuel cell in 1842, which made hydrogen a viable, and potentially greener, alternative energy source for transportation.

Trains are ideal candidates to be powered by hydrogen, because they are big enough to accommodate the equipment and fuel its use requires. A fuel cell installed on a train produces electric power by mixing hydrogen with oxygen from the air. This zero-emission process makes hydrogen trains a crucial player in systemic decarbonisation. Compared with airplanes and trucks, trains are already a lower-carbon mode of transport. Fuelling trains with hydrogen holds the potential to fully decarbonise this vital mode of transporting people and goods, including heavy-duty long-haul.

From diesel to hydrogen

French transportation multinational Alstom’s Coradia iLint is the world’s first passenger train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The regional train with zero direct carbon emissions has been running in the German state of Lower Saxony since 2018 and has reportedly stopped 4,400 tonnes of carbon being released into the atmosphere each year.1

Alstom says there is enthusiasm for the technology—especially in Europe, where 25% of trains are powered by high-polluting diesel instead of electricity. ‘We have Coradia iLint contracts in Germany that are already in commercial service,’ says Brahim Soua, VP regional rolling stock platform at Alstom. “We also have contracts in Italy where Alstom is building hydrogen trains in the region of Lombardy. The Coradia iLint has been successfully tested in Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and in France. And since June 2023 we have had a train running in Canada and in the autumn, the train will be on demonstration in the Middle East.”

Rail’s carbon footprint goes beyond the trains

Decarbonising the railway industry will depend on the adoption of cleaner fuels, but it also depends on reducing the carbon footprint of the rolling stock’s production process. Alstom is one of the firms that has set science-based targets to reduce 40% of Scope 1 and 2 emissions—the emissions generated by a company’s operations—by 2030 through energy efficiencies and switching to renewable sources.

For Scope 3 emissions, those that occur in a company’s value-chain, Alstom is aiming for a 42% reduction per passenger-kilometre of emissions from the use of sold products and a 35% reduction per ton-kilometre of emissions from the use of sold products covering freight by 2030.

“For this, we are using a specific digital platform, because we need full visibility of our suppliers and the real footprint of what we are buying,” says Soua. Alstom is also reinforcing its factories’ local presence to be closer to its end customers and thus reduce the transportation of equipment and materials during the manufacturing phase. Aluminium and steel, which the company has identified as emission hotspots, now come from recycled parts.

“For example, TGV M, which is the new generation of high-speed trains in France, is using aluminium profiles from recycled sources and produced with renewable electricity,” says Soua. “This cuts emissions by 50%. We are aiming to use this ‘ecodesign’ approach on 100 per cent of our new products by 2025.”

Targeted policymaking and collaboration can overcome the barriers

Alstom’s promising start does not mean implementation is easy. “Adapting existing fuel cells from other industries to a rail environment was one of the challenges of Alstom’s R&D programme, and securing a robust supply chain for the equipment has been demanding,” says Soua. “We’re also continuously working to improve the level of hydrogen consumption of our trains.”

However, the only way to fully decarbonise rail is to use green hydrogen for the fuel cells. One big issue is the price of green hydrogen, which is made using renewable energy. At a price of between €6 and €8/kg, depending on the region where it is produced, green hydrogen remains more expensive than fossil-fuel based grey hydrogen which costs €1 to €2/kg. However, Soua says that Alstom “expects the price of green hydrogen to drop in the near future”. Green hydrogen will become more economical thanks to potential subsidies and steadily decreasing renewable energy production costs, economies of scale, technological advances.2

The next step for hydrogen trains has to start with policymakers and regulators. It might mean applying the types of commitments that have been made in other sectors—such as requiring all cars sold in Europe to be low emission from 2035—to the rail industry. Government incentives can also accelerate the transition of fleets to hydrogen and the development of infrastructure.

“We need that political will to implement a clear diesel ban,’ says Soua. “Another important topic is funding. When you are introducing a new technology, you need help to invest at the beginning and then to deploy it.” The EU’s important projects of common European interest (IPCEIs) scheme is a start: in September 2022 it committed to granting up to €5.2 billion in public funding to hydrogen projects, which is expected to attract an additional €7 billion in private investment.3

Another key driver will be cross-industry collaboration. 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. In Germany for example, the Höchst Industrie Park in Frankfurt houses a hydrogen filling station that enables hydrogen buses and Alstom rail cars to refuel.4 ‘We need an ecosystem involving all modes of transport,’ says Soua. “It is this kind of collaborative approach that will drive innovation and investment in the hydrogen economy.”

This article was produced in collaboration with The Financial Times as part of the PwC-sponsored Energy Transition content series and was first published on pwc.ft.com on September 4, 2023.

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