“This is the first time in the history of civilisation that private individuals with no fiscal interest have, for societal reasons, sparked the change of a major element of the world’s physical infrastructure,” says Stan Thompson, former futurist and strategic planner at American telecommunications company AT&T, and long-term advocate of the use of hydrogen for rail transportation.

The change Thompson is referring to is the rise of hydrail, a term he coined in 2003, when the world was slowly sobering up to this new railway propulsion method and its possibilities.

Over the past decade, hydrail fuel cell technology has gradually gained in popularity, from the first ever fuel cell hybrid railcar being tested in Japan in 2006, to UK’s first hydrogen passenger train completing a pilot trip in 2012, to China’s 2015 debut of a fully operational hydrogen-powered tram in Qingdao.

But the next big step comes from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, which plans to electrify its entire 1,100km railway network using hydrail fuel cell equipment by 2025. The vision is that all propulsion hydrogen will come from renewable, zero-carbon sources, predominately wind.

“I always thought that Germany would be the most likely place because of their commitment to the environment and their reputation for being technological leaders,” Thompson says.

The project is led by three long-term hydrail advocates. On the one hand, there’s Thompson, who has been working to promote hydrail since he retired from AT&T in 1996, and was the second person to ever hint at the possibility that hydrogen technology could be used for passenger transit.

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The first mention came in 1998 from Dr Holger Busche; scientific contributor of economic, energy, traffic and innovation for the Green Party in the Schleswig-Holstein State Parliament, who, together with founder of the German Green Party Herr Detlef Matthiessen, are now leading the hydrogen transition in the north of the country.

Setting an example

At present, electrification is mostly absent from railways in northern Germany, with its network being mostly reliant on diesel fuel.

The state of Schleswig-Holstein used to produce twice as much electricity as it consumed, derived mainly from coal-fired plants and atomic power, but these were progressively phased out to make way for carbon-neutral sources of energy, such as wind and solar power.

Now, the state continues to over-produce and, as a result, the excessive energy stored in the grid can be conveniently used for its transport sector.

“We want to see a complete network running on hydrail including international lines up to Esbjerg in Denmark,” Herr Matthiessen says.

“The strategic target is to run every train in Schleswig-Holstein by electricity, both with and without catenary systems. For longer distances and heavier trains, we want to replace those with hydrail, and the hydrogen gas will be produced by windmills.”

The green credentials of this technology are certainly impressive.

“We want to see a complete network running on hydrail.”

To power the locomotives, the hydrail equipment relies on the creation of fuel cells, a result of combining hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is supplied by an on-board fuel cell power module which produces electricity, either from batteries or fed through overhead wires, or catenaries. Since combustion is replaced by an electrochemical process, no harmful emissions are produced.

Thompson’s calculations, based on a 2007 set of figures from India Rail, estimate that as much as three billion barrels of crude oil – or the equivalent of 214 million tonnes of CO2 – could be saved over one year by transitioning from diesel to hydrail.

“The two magic properties of hydrogen are the ability to store and transport it,” Thompson says. “It’s that utility of time and place which is unique to the hydrogen economy. And that’s what you can’t do with the existing power grid.”

There’s also an economic reason behind investing in windmills instead of diesel oil, as Busch explains: “We have fluctuations in wind and solar energy which gives us the chance to produce energy for very, very cheap.”

Multinational rail manufacturer Alstom is heavily invested in this project. A pilot locomotive will be delivered in 2018 in Lower Saxony, followed by 60 fully functional hydrail cars delivered to Schleswig-Holstein by 2020.

Shifting to hydrogen requires a change in mentality

The one challenge that “overshadows all the other ones combined”, says Thompson, is a change in attitude, or rather convincing people within the industry of the merits of hydrail. Additionally, the fact that hydrogen propulsion has widely been publicised as a technology suited to cars has also held it back from reaching its potential on the rail network.

“The nature of railways industry is that it’s extremely resistant to change,” he says. “Once you’ve put investment into something, you want it to stay there for many, many years so you can get your money back. So that means that the bigger the plan, the more strenuously [the industry] resists change.”

“The railways industry is extremely resistant to change.”

Some of these barriers have been progressively broken down through a string of International Hydrogen Conference events. Growing from a small-town environmental transit project first organised by Thompson in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2003, the conferences ended up attracting enough interest to be hosted everywhere from Denmark, Germany, Spain, Turkey and the UK. Over time, they received endorsement from the United Nations, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Turkish Ministry of Transportation, among others.

The conferences offered a common platform for international delegates sharing the same vision of hydrogen to meet, discuss and plan new initiatives. For example, the University of Pisa in Italy went on to launch the first PhD programme related to hydrogen, with the first generation of experts graduating in 2012.

But once the technology is demonstrated, mainly due to the Schleswig-Holstein innovation, the project’s backers agree that a paradigm shift is in store.

Will hydrail catch on?

“We expect a more widespread rollout of hydrail because renewable energies are coming up in many countries,” Herr Matthiessen says. “Storing energy derived by renewable into hydrogen is one of the central answers to the natural fluctuation in production of wind and solar.”

“After we show that these hydrail locomotives work in Germany, I’m sure there will be big export market for this, especially since in a lot of countries in the world, the rail market is growing.”

For years, countries such as Japan, China and Taiwan have been advancing their own hydrail innovations.

Leading the way in 2006 was East Japan Railway Company, which researched and developed the world’s first fuel cell hybrid railcar.

A year later, the Taiwan Science and Technology Museum spent $12m on building its own train fuel cell power system, track and hydrogen stations.

The US swiftly followed suit in 2009, when BNSF, one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America, rolled out its first hydrogen-powered fuel cell locomotive, after receiving $4.4m in funding from the Department of Defence.

In 2010, a collaboration between the China North Vehicle Yongji Electric Motor Corporation and the Southwest Jiaotong University successfully launched their own prototype, recognising that the “new-energy fuel cell light-rail train has many potential applications, as well as huge economic and environmental benefits in fields such as railways, subways, urban-suburban light-rail railways and mining”.

“This will be the model that changes the world.”

More recently, Bloomberg reported on China’s first fully functional hydrogen tram, which runs at about 43mph and can carry 380 passengers for about 62 miles. Although, in 2015 there were only 83 miles of hydrogen tram tracks across the whole country, Chinese officials hinted at plans to invest $32 billion to expand these tracks to over 1,200 miles by 2020.

When it comes to railways, however, Schleswig-Holstein is sure to be the pioneer.

“The next milestone is to take the paradigm that Busche and Matthiessen have come up with and put it together as an intelligently planned whole,” Thompson says. This stands as one of the key goals of the Eleventh International Hydrail Conference taking place in Birmingham this July.

As soon as they manage to do that, Thompson believes hydrail is bound to follow in the footsteps of all other innovations that have revolutionised the way we see transport today.

“The fact that they came up with an entire rail network run entirely by renewable energy, this will be the model that changes the world,” he says.