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Expert view: Why are hydrail trains running so late?

Posted by Stan Thompson on Oct 31, 2016

Coradia iLint (Picture courtesy of Alstom)For those of you who attended InnoTrans in September, you may have been lucky enough to have seen the unveiling by Alstom of the Coradia iLint (pictured right), a new CO2-emission-free regional train powered by hydrogen fuel cells. An alternative to diesel power, its only emissions are steam and condensed water. Alstom is the first railway manufacturer in the world to develop a passenger train based on this technology and their Chairman and CEO, Henri Poupart-Lafarge declared to journalists a “breakthrough innovation in the field of clean transportation”.

Here at SmartRail World we are always keen to cover innovations, particularly when they aim to help improve the industry's impact on the environment. But we were a little puzzled at why this technology seems to have taken so long to reach the mainstream. Some research led us to Stan Thompson a retiree from AT&T and Co-Founder of the non-profit International Hydrail Conferences who today pens a guest post for us, looking at why he thinks the hydrail revolution has been so slow in arriving …

Today hydrogen fuel cell hybrid trams are rolling out of two factories in China. Hydrail streetcars are being built in California. Four German States have dozens of hydrail regional trains on order for 2020 completion and a fifth State—Schleswig-Holstein—means to use hydrail and wind to attain an entire zero-carbon rail network by 2025, eliminating all diesel traction. A recent study chartered by Germany’s Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure suggests the whole country may soon follow suit.

It’s been eighteen years since Dr. Holger Busche first proposed that commuter trains in northern Germany could be powered by wind turbine electric energy, carried onboard trains as hydrogen and reconverted by fuel cells to power for traction motors.

It’s been thirteen years since the US Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems center invited me to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to make a similar pitch...but without the wind angle; I didn’t yet know about Dr. Busche’s work.

It’s been eleven years since 2005, when Appalachian State University, the Bank of America, the State of North Carolina, the Centralina Council of Governments and the Mooresville and Charlotte Chambers of Commerce sponsored the first of eleven (so far) International Hydrail Conferences. These “IHCs” annually bring together academic, government and industrial hydrail interests from around the world to advance the railway transition from diesel and overhead electrification to hydrogen and onboard electric power for anti‑pollution, climate, aesthetic and economic reasons.

That’s a long time; much longer than it needed to be.

HYDRAIL_IS_TO_DIESEL....jpgThe delay has had little to do with technology. If the general public had been aware that the tangle of overhead catenary plant powering streetcars could be avoided, the needed technology would have evolved rapidly enough and a wireless streetcar renaissance would now be booming.

The delay had nothing to do with a cost penalty. Eliminating the power-plant-to-railcar-pantograph paraphernalia actually cuts over US $10 million per track mile from initial capitalization and completely eliminates catenary maintenance and repair expense.

What’s caused the delay is subtle, profound and perhaps unprecedented: where long-life, publicly funded, transportation technology is concerned, the media wields veto power over technology innovations! Here’s how.

The complex of manufacturers, operators, consulting engineers, and—above all—regulators has everything to lose by a rail traction paradigm shift such as hydrail, from job security to undepreciated investment. Fiduciary obligations dictate avoiding early retirement and removal of undepreciated capital assets. In many cases hydrail must cause this. The rail transit industry is notoriously change-averse; to be so is enlightened self-interest—because fast change is costly.

Read the Rail and Metro Innovation Guide 2017

But the legitimate self-interests of the public are diametrically opposed to the legitimate self-interests of the government-industry complex. Climate change avoidance; fine particulate emissions elimination for health reasons; and conservation of irreplaceable non-fuel petroleum resources for future generations all imply, that for the public good, diesel traction be phased-out.

Avoiding waste of public money requires that further deployment of 19th century catenary track electrification should stop and be superseded by hydrail.

The media purports to be champions of the public. Yet concealing the emergence of hydrail favors costly ”brown” legacy investment over modern, less expensive “green” hydrail technology.

HYDRAIL_LOGO_GRAPHIC_MVL.jpgThis adverse media dynamic is almost exclusively the reason the hydrail train is running so late. What drives this derailing process?

Legacy media, especially daily newspapers, have been ravaged by loss of ad revenue to social media and online news. Many reporters and editors have been let go. First out the door have been science and business writers and editors.

When residual “crime reporters” and editors are tipped-off about hydrail, they go to the industry’s “usual suspects” for authoritative confirmation. Even if the “usuals” know about hydrail, saying so would hardly advance their careers so they dismiss the notion.

The public—keen on environmental issues and surely unwilling for tax dollars to go into obsolescent “brown” investment—never hear there is an alternative...and so can't demand that modernization be considered.

But Germany and China are too big to sweep under the media rug so hydrail will soon see sunlight and ink. And now that Alstom Transport has shifted the paradigm, look for it to shift further with a vengeance.

The Twelfth International Hydrail Conference will be held next year in Graz, Austria, on 27-28 June 2017. For more on Hydrail click here. 

About the author: 

Stan Thompson with Alstom Transport's Coradia iLint at the InnoTrans rollout in Berlin, 20 September 2016.Stan Thompson was a planning engineer, a corporate planner and a futurist in the areas of environmentalism and transportation for BellSouth Telecommunications, now part of AT&T. Although his degree (AB, Pfeiffer College, 1962) is non-technical, he is a Life Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He introduced the concept of passenger hydrail in an invited presentation to the US Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center on August 21, 2003, and coined the term “hydrail” in an invited article in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy’s February, 2004 issue. He writes a column on history, economics and politics in the Mooresville [NC, USA] Tribune

And as always with guest posts, they do not necessarily reflect the views of SmartRail World's Editorial team. Agree or disagree? Have your say by posting below or e-mail to let us know.


Topics: Rolling Stock

Stan Thompson

Written by Stan Thompson

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