Hydrogen-Powered Trains

Once isolated, Hydrogen can serve as a form of fuel. It has been proposed that Hydrogen for fuelling hydrail vehicles can be produced in individual maintenance depots, requiring only a steady supply of electricity and water.

Using the power of Hydrogen for zero emissions


Hydrogen is a common and easy to find element, being that each molecule of water has two atoms of Hydrogen for every oxygen atom present. Hydrogen can be separated from water via several means, including steam reforming (normally involving the use of fossil fuels) and electrolysis which requires large amounts of electricity and is less commonly used.

Once isolated, Hydrogen can serve as a form of fuel. It has been proposed that Hydrogen for fuelling hydrail vehicles can be produced in individual maintenance depots, requiring only a steady supply of electricity and water; it can then be pumped into pressurised tanks upon the vehicle. The development of lighter and more capable fuel cells has increased the viability of hydrogen-powered vehicles. 


A key technology of a typical hydrogen propulsion system is the fuel cell. This device converts the chemical energy contained within the Hydrogen in order to generate electricity, as well as water and heat. As such, a fuel cell would operate in a manner that is essentially inverse to the electrolysis process used to create the fuel; consuming pure Hydrogen to produce electricity rather than consuming electrical energy to produce Hydrogen, albeit incurring some level of energy losses in the exchange. Reportedly, the efficiency of converting electricity to Hydrogen and back again is just beneath thirty per cent, roughly similar to contemporary diesel engines but less than conventional electric traction using overhead catenary wires. The electricity produced by the onboard fuel cell is then fed into a motor to propel the train. However, as per European standards, overhead wire electrification costs are around eur 2m/km, so electrification is not a cost-efficient solution for routes with low traffic, and battery and hydrail solutions may be alternatives.

Few leading railway industrial publications have also theorised that the expanding prevalence of wind power has led to some countries having surpluses of electrical energy during nighttime hours and that this trend could offer a means of low-cost and highly available energy with which Hydrogen could be conveniently produced via electrolysis. In this manner, it is believed that the production of Hydrogen using off-peak electricity available from country’s electrical grids shall likely be one of the most economic practices available. 

As per a recent study, it has been found that Hydrogen produced via electrolysis commonly costs roughly the same as natural gas and almost double that of diesel fuel; however, unlike either of these fossil-based fuels, hydrogen propulsion produces zero vehicle emissions. A European Commission report states that if Hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming, hydrail emissions are nearly forty-five percent lower than diesel trains.

According to Rail Engineer and Alstom, a 10MW wind farm is capable of comfortably producing 2.5 tonnes of Hydrogen per day; enough to power a fleet of 14 iLint trains over a distance of 600 km per day. Reportedly the production of Hydrogen worldwide has been expanding in quantity and availability, increasing its attractiveness as a fuel. The need to build up a capable distribution network for Hydrogen, which in turn requires substantial investments to be made, is likely to play a role in restraining the growth of hydrail, at least in the short term.

It was observed by Railway Technology that the rail industry has been historically slow to adopt new technologies and relatively conservative in outlook; however, successful large-scale deployment of this technology by an early adopter may be decisive in overcoming attitudes of reluctance and traditionalism. Additionally, there could be significant benefits to transitioning from diesel to hydrail propulsion. According to the results of a study performed by a consortium of Hitachi Rail Europe, the University of Birmingham, and Fuel Cell Systems Ltd, hydrail vehicles in the form of re-powered diesel multiple units could be capable of generating significant energy consumption reductions; reportedly, their model indicated a saving of up to 52 per cent on the Norwich to Sheringham line over conventional traction.


Hydrail is the generic (not capitalised) adjective term describing all forms of rail vehicles, large or small, which use onboard hydrogen fuel as a source of energy to power the traction motors, or the auxiliaries, or both. Hydrail vehicles use the chemical energy of Hydrogen for propulsion, either by burning Hydrogen in a hydrogen internal combustion engine, or by reacting Hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to run electric motors. Widespread use of Hydrogen for fuelling rail transportation is a basic element of the proposed hydrogen economy. The term is used extensively by research scholars and technicians around the world.

Hydrail vehicles are usually hybrid vehicles with renewable energy storage, such as batteries or supercapacitors, for regenerative braking, improving efficiency and lowering the amount of hydrogen storage required. Potential hydrail applications include all types of rail transport: commuter rail; passenger rail; freight rail; light rail; rail rapid transit; mine railways; industrial railway systems; trams; and special rail rides at parks and museums.

The term hydrail is claimed to be first used in US in August 22, 2003 in an invited presentation at Volpe Transportations Systems Center in Cambridge, MA. However, according to authors Stan Thompson and Jim Bowman, the term first appeared in print on 17 February 2004 in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy as a search engine target word to enable scholars and technicians around the world working in the hydrogen rail area to more easily publish and locate all work produced within the discipline.

Since 2005, annual International Hydrail Conferences have been held. The conferences have the aim of bringing together scientists, engineers, business leaders, industrial experts, and operators working or using the technology around the world in order to expedite deployment of the technology for environmental, climate, energy security and economic development reasons. Presenters at these conferences have included national and state/provincial agencies from the US, Austria, Canada, China, Denmark, the EU, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United Nations (UNIDO-ICHET). In its early years, these conferences were largely dominated by academic fields; however, by 2013, an increasing number of businesses and industrial figures had reportedly been in attendance.

During the 2010s, both fuel cells and hydrogen generation equipment have been taken up by several transport operators across various countries, such as China, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Many of the same technologies that can be applied to hydrail vehicles can be applied to other forms of transport as well, such as road vehicles.


A hydrolley is a term for a streetcar or tram (trolley) powered by hydrail technology. The term (for hydrogen trolley) was coined at the Fourth International Hydrail Conference, Valencia, Spain, in 2008, as a research-simplifying search engine target word. Onboard hydrogen-derived power eliminates the need for overhead trolley arms and track electrification, greatly reducing construction cost, reducing visual pollution and eliminating the maintenance expense of track electrification. The term ‘hydrolley’ is preferred to ‘hydrail light rail’ or other combinations which might connote external electrification.

Major breakthrough: Project & Prototypes

  • In 2002, the first 3.6 tonne, 17 kW, hydrogen-powered mining locomotive powered by Nuvera Fuel Cells for Placer Dome was demonstrated in Quebec.
  • In April 2006, the world’s first hydrail railcar developed by East Japan Railway Company was developed.
  • In October 2006, the Railway Technical Research Institute in Japan conducted tests on a fuel cell hydrail, a 70-ton intercity train powered by Nuvera Fuel Cells.
  • In April 2007, the mini-hydrail from the Taiwan National Science and Technology Museum and Taiwan Fuel Cell Partnership combination made its first educational ride.
  • In 2007, the Railway Technical Research Institute in Japan built two 62 ton passenger cars, each with a 450 kW PEM fuel cell and a 150 kW battery.
  • In 2008, the East Japan Railway Company in Japan tested its experimental NE Train hybrid train fitted with two 65 kW PEM fuel cells and 19 kWh lithium ion batteries for a short period in the Nagano area.
  • In 2009, BNSF Railway unveiled its Vehicle Projects HH20B, a switcher-locomotive powered by hydrogen fuel cells and developed in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers and Vehicle Projects Inc. It reportedly performed its first run during 2010.
  • In 2010, a 357-kilometre high-speed hydrail line was proposed in Indonesia. The rail link, now under feasibility study, would connect several cities in Java with a hydrogen-powered maglev system.
  • In 2011, FEVE and the University of Valladolid (CIDAUT) launched the FC Tram H2 Project in Asturias using a converted FABIOLOS series 3400 from SNCV. It can carry up to 30 passengers with a maximum speed of 20 km/h.
  • During 2012, the Hydrogen Train Project in Denmark commenced its efforts to develop and build Europe’s first Hydrogen powered train using Hydrogen in an internal combustion engine.
  • Between 2012 and 2014, testing was conducted on the hydrail concept in China. In November 2010, Southwest Jiaotong University demonstrated their first hydrail prototype.
  • During 2012, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) in South Africa and Vehicle Projects Inc. launched 5 PEMFC Trident new era locomotives at the Dishaba mine with reversible metal-hydride storage for testing.
  • In 2014, the German states of Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and the Public Transportation Authorities of Hesse signed a letter of intent with Alstom Transport for trials with 2 fuel cell Alstom Coradia trains by 2018.
  • During 2015, the University of Warwick started work on a hydrogen powered locomotive. That same year, the Downtown Oranjestad streetcar in Aruba went into service; the Downtown Dubai Trolley Project is intended to go into service around Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall in Dubai. In 2015, CSR Sifang Co Ltd. showed its first 380-passenger tram in Qingdao, China.
  • During September 2016, Alstom revealed their newly developed iLint train, produced at their factory in Salzgitter. In November 2017, the state of Lower Saxony’s local transportation authority ordered an initial fleet of 14 iLints. Testing and approval by the German Federal Railway Authority Eisenbahn-Bundesamt commenced in late 2016.
  • 2016 – CRRC TRC(Tangshan) developed the world’s first commercial fuel cell hybrid tram and completed its first test run on Nanhu industrial tourism demonstration operation in 2017.
  • 2018 – A pair of prototype Ilint trains are to enter regular revenue service on the Buxtehude–Bremervörde–Bremerhaven–Cuxhaven region. Schleswig-Holstein intends to electrify the entirety of its 1,100 km network using a fleet of 60 iLint hydrail vehicles by 2025.
  • As of January 2018, all vehicles are planned to be maintained at a depot in Bremervorde, which will be the world’s first hydrogen train refuelling depot; Hydrogen is to be generated on-site using local wind turbines.
  • In September 2017, Alstom proposed a trial of Hydrogen Fuel Cell powered train on the new Liverpool to Chester line in England, which is scheduled for opening in December 2018. Alstom have a new facility in Halebank on the edge of Liverpool adjacent to the line, with Hydrogen available from the nearby Stanlow Refinery.
  • In March 2018, the Sarawak state government in Malaysia proposed that the Kuching Light Rail Transit system will be powered using hydrogen fuel cells and is expected to be completed by 2024. However, in September 2018, the Sarawak Chief Minister announced that the project has been placed on hold, citing that the funds were needed elsewhere.
  • In September 2018, the world’s first commercial hydrogen-powered passenger train enters service in Lower Saxony, Germany. The Alstom developed train uses a hydrogen fuel cell which emits no carbon dioxide.
  • In June 2019, East Japan Railway Company announced that it is investing into developing a two-car trainset using hydrogen fuel-cell technology from Toyota, hoping to start trials by 2021 and have commercially viable technology ready by 2024. Toyota has been using fuel cell technology in the Mirai cars.
  • In November 2019, the first hydrogen fuel cell train in the United States was ordered from Swiss manufacturer Stadler Rail for service on the future Arrow rail line between Redlands, California, and San Bernardino, California.
  • On March 17, 2021, French Railway Company announced that 15 Hydrail will be operated on the Caen-Alençon-Le Mans-Tours line (northwest France) in the 5 years to come. The line is operated with exclusively Diesel Train (X 72500 and XGC).
  • In April 2021, 14 Hydrail (2 of which optional) were ordered by French Railway Company from Alstom for an amount of 200 million euros. The trains will be operated by 2025 in 4 regions (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Grand Est et Occitanie). These trains have 600 km of autonomy without direct CO2 emission.

Hydrogen-Powered Trains in India

The Indian Railways has begun work on hydrogen-powered trains. As per an official statement, IR has invited bids for hydrogen fuel cell-based technology by retrofitting on the Diesel Electric Multiple Unit (DEMU) which runs along the 89 km Sonipat-Jind section of Northern Railway. 

Through this pilot project, the Indian Railways wants to determine if existing diesel run trains can be retrofitted to operate on hydrogen fuel cell-based technology instead.

The railways envisages that retrofitting of diesel powered DEMU and converting it into hydrogen fuel powered train set will not only save the cost to the tune of Rs 2.3 crores annually by converting from diesel to Hydrogen, but also save the carbon footprint (NO2) of 11.12 kilo tons per annum and particulates matter of 0.72 kilo tonnes per annum.

After successful implementation of this pilot project (in case the pilot project working out) the railways in India has stated that all the rolling stock which will operate on diesel fuel after electrification can be planned to run on hydrogen fuel.

Indian Railways already has conveyed that initially two DEMU rakes will be converted to hydrogen-powered units. Later, based on hydrogen fuel cell power movement, the Railways will also convert two hybrid narrow gauge locos.

After conversion, these trains will run on Hydrogen, the greenest mode of transport, as it can be generated by electrolysing the water from solar energy. Currently, only a few countries in the world use hydrogen fuel cell-based technology to power trains. 


Climate change and emissions reduction are topics high on the agenda for the rail industry. As companies continue to seek more sustainable fuel options the potential of Hydrogen as a train fuel is being increasingly explored these days. Although rail has a less harmful impact on the environment than many other modes of transport, the industry is constantly striving towards alternative fuels, which could help reduce its environmental impact. Some companies have opted for battery-powered engines as a cleaner alternative, while others are turning to Hydrogen to fuel their trains.

Hydrogen fuel can be produced through several methods. The most commonly used methods today are natural gas reforming (a thermal process), and electrolysis of water, which sees electricity running through water to separate the Hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The electricity used can be generated by wind, solar and hydro sources.

The world’s first hydrogen train

The world’s first passenger train powered by hydrogen fuel cell was produced by Alstom. Named ‘Coradia iLint’, this zero-emission train also emits low noise levels due to the exhaust being only steam and condensed water. 

The train was first showcased back in 2016 at InnoTrans in Berlin and entered commercial service in Germany in 2018. Following on from successful operations in Germany, Alstom received several orders for its hydrogen-powered locomotives from Italy, France and Austria.

While many alternative propulsion concepts are still in the development and research stage, Hydrogen for rail application is gaining popularity and is into operations. 

Below mentioned are few reasons as why Hydrogen has a place in the future of the railway industry.

  1. Trains powered by Hydrogen have zero emissions at the point of use. The power required for the train’s systems is supplied via a fuel cell, which generates energy by combining the Hydrogen stored on the train’s roof with oxygen in the air. There are no emissions of carbon dioxide in this process. They are also efficient: fuel cells are up to three times more efficient than internal combustion engines.
  2. Hydrogen trains can be deployed anywhere and retrofitted into existing trains and lines. Hydrogen trains represent a cost-effective alternative that doesn’t sacrifice efficiency or emissions. They can simply run on existing rail infrastructure without the high cost of adding electrification. Cummins fuel cell solutions are flexible and scalable in their configuration and can be customised to fit customers’ needs optimally.
  3. Hydrogen fuel cell trains have an exceptionally long range of up to 1000 kilometers at a maximum speed of 140km/h between refuelling—ten times farther than battery powered electric trains. And refuelling is quick: Hydrogen powered trains can run for 18 or more hours after less than 20 minutes of refuelling.
  4. Fuel cells are cost effective and low maintenance. The total lifetime cost of ownership is already comparable for trains running on diesel or electrified lines, according to a report by consulting firm Roland Berger. There is a long asset life compared to electrification, and repairs are often as simple as swapping out one plug-in component for another.
  5. Trains powered by Hydrogen are quiet and comfortable. Hydrogen provides a smooth driving experience and emits low noise levels due to the exhaust being only steam and condensed water. This is especially important in urban areas where noise pollution is an issue. 

To support the continued expansion of hydrogen fuel systems, The global power giant, Cummins recently announced the ground-breaking of a new facility in Herten Germany to support the production of fuel cell systems for the hundreds of hydrogen trains to be in service over the next several years in Europe and few parts of Asia with Alstom. The facility is currently prioritising the assembly of fuel cell systems, while actively working on expansion plans to support fuel cell stack refurbishment.

Metro Rail News is conducting a 2nd Edition InnoMetro 2022 on 28-30 April 2022, virtually focusing on Seamless Mobility. Join InnoMetro 2022 for a detailed discussion on the topic “Hydrogen-Powered Trains”.

Join as a delegate: https://bit.ly/3uihjkd

Join as a Speaker: https://bit.ly/3N7lcRj

Join as a Partner: https://bit.ly/3widL3Y

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