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Each week we take a look with EV specialist and Innovation Origins columnist Auke Hoekstra at what caught his eye on topical issues or what he runs into where the preservation of our planet is concerned. This week Auke explains why hydrogen trains are a good alternative to diesel.

After a lengthy dial tone there’s finally a voice on the other end of the line: “For the life of me, I can’t think of anything right now.”

Various topics come to the fore. From the storm that swept across the country on Sunday, endangering the roof of Auke’s sustainable home. To stock market analyst Jim Cramer (“the personification of short-term thinking and essentially just a clownish figure”) who has finally realized that fossil fuel is doomed. “But we’ve already talked about that …” Then suddenly Auke knows what he has to say.

Since 2018, the German transport company Eisenbahnen und Verkehrsbetriebe Elbe-Weser (EVB) has been testing two hydrogen trains as an alternative to diesel trains. Next year, the transport company will include fourteen trains in its service schedule for Lower Saxony. Soon a pilot with hydrogen trains running between Groningen and Leeuwarden will also start in the Netherlands as part of the evening service schedule. If all goes well, the province of Groningen wants to replace diesel trains with new hydrogen-powered trains in 2023.

Installation of overhead cables a major expense

“Electric trains generally need to have overhead cables. But that cabling doesn’t go everywhere. The tracks are there anyway, therefore electric trains are still a good idea. The trains that run on diesel also have an electric motor. Diesel is converted into electricity by a generator, except that we’re trying to get rid of those dirty things. The only problem is that on routes – I’m charging ahead now – where only one train passes once every year, it’s far too expensive to lay overhead cables. Off the top of my head, you shouldn’t be surprised if it costs a million euros per kilometer. Its definitely cheaper to fill up with diesel along quiet sections.”

Ýet fortunately, as Auke states, there are several options that will make diesel a reality within several years. “Hydrogen, such as they are currently importing into Germany, is one of them. Batteries are also getting better and cheaper, which makes battery-powered trains a realistic option. The nice thing about this is that you can do without sections of overhead cables. And it is precisely the installation of these that’s so expensive. I think 20% of the overhead cables account for 80% of the costs. Certainly in built-up areas it can be five times more expensive than in rural areas. You have to take existing roads, buildings and people into account. I once calculated that you can leave out about 80% of these cables. That’s what’s been happening since we got those nice new lithium batteries that aren’t too heavy.”


Hydrogen production is becoming greener

Why is hydrogen being pursued anyway? “That was my first thought, too. Hydrogen is very inefficient. You start with energy, you turn it into hydrogen and then you turn it back into energy again. You lose 30% of it that way and then you still have to transport it. Hydrogen loses more than half of its energy. It is also true that at the moment hydrogen is primarily produced by burning fossil fuels. So, it’s actually no good at all for the environment.”

Nevertheless, Auke insists that hydrogen will eventually be able to replace diesel in trains. “The technique for storing energy in hydrogen is also becoming more efficient. Energy losses will be reduced in the future. Hydrogen is becoming greener and cheaper too. I think that on long journeys through urban areas, where it is expensive to build an overhead cable system, hydrogen could prove to be cheaper than a battery-electric train.”

Elon Musk of the Train World

“I don’t think we should write off hydrogen trains right now, even though they might be less efficient. It’s still a more climate-friendly alternative than those dirty diesel trains that are still operating around here.”

In his view, we should look at the best alternative for each mode of transport: “In shipping and aviation, batteries are almost irrelevant, whereas a lot is expected of hydrogen. Yet if you then consider local, circular bus routes, then batteries are a better option. Development of more sustainable alternatives is significantly slower in the train world, I think this is due to the many laws and regulations. Take the EMRS system that was invented more than twenty years ago, we’ll be lucky if all the tracks and trains are equipped with it within ten years. They’re not flashy, flexible companies. You don’t have an Elon Musk to shake things up.”

Read earlier articles in our Electric Auke series here.