In a shot in the arm for clean energy, two hydrogen-powered trains recently went into commercial service on a rail line in northern Germany near Hamburg. The Coradia iLint trains are running along a 62-mile corridor between towns in Lower Saxony in the northern part of Germany. The trains have fuel cells that generate electricity via chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen, with lithium-ion batteries storing excess electricity. Hydrogen-powered vehicles produce no carbon emissions. It is also a cheaper alternative than stringing wires on rail lines that are not electrified or for places where overhead lines are not possible or not yet available.

While these trains cost more than diesel ones, they are cheaper to operate because hydrogen fuel is easy to produce and can be sourced from renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar and, as such, are more cost-effective over their life cycle. The cost of hydrogen is also coming down gradually.

The zero-emission train emits low levels of noise, with exhaust being only water and steam, and are much more efficient and cleaner than diesel. It’s a well-known fact that diesel-powered trains have significant amounts of carbon emission and pollutants that cause a range of health problems.

The trains, made by Alstom, a French company, received massive support from the government. As part of its plans to combat climate change, Germany aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, and has committed to using 80 per cent renewable energy in power supplies by 2050.

The plan is to eventually have 14 trains on the line in Lower Saxony and sell more of these trains to rail operators within Germany and other countries. France is already planning to have its first hydrogen train up and running by 2022. Hydrogen-powered trains are a good option for countries with limited petroleum reserves.

Hydrail is the generic term used for all forms of rail vehicles that use on-board hydrogen as a source of energy. They are usually hybrid vehicles with renewable energy storage, such as batteries or super capacitors, for regenerative braking, improving efficiency, and lowering the amount of hydrogen storage required. In the iLint trains, smart power management ensures that electrical energy is supplied on demand – that is, the fuel cell is required to work in full operation only when the train is accelerating over sustained periods. When the train brakes, the fuel cells are almost powered down, saving on hydrogen consumption.