First fleet of Hydrogen Trains in the world

Germany launches the world's first fleet of hydrogen trains. They were designed in France by Alstom.
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Germany is inaugurating on Wednesday a railway line running entirely on hydrogen, a “world first” and a major step forward for the decarbonization of railways, despite the supply challenges posed by this innovative technology.

A fleet of fourteen trains, supplied by the French company Alstom to the region of Lower Saxony (north), will replace the current diesel locomotives on the hundred or so kilometers of the line linking the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehud, not far from Hamburg.

“Whatever the time of day, passengers will travel on this route thanks to hydrogen,” Stefan Schrank, head of the project at Alstom, told AFP, hailing it as a “world first.

Hydrogen-powered trains are a preferred way to reduce CO2 emissions and replace diesel, which still powers 20% of trips in Germany.

They mix on-board hydrogen with oxygen present in the ambient air, thanks to a fuel cell installed in the roof. This produces the electricity necessary for the traction of the train.


Designed in France, in Tarbes (south of France), and assembled in Salzgitter (central Germany), Alstom’s trains – called Coradia iLint – are pioneers in this field.

Commercial trials have been conducted since 2018 on this line with two hydrogen trains running regularly. The entire fleet is now adopting this technology.

The French group has signed four contracts for several dozen trains, in Germany, France and Italy, and does not see the demand weakening.

In Germany alone “between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains could be replaced by hydrogen”, according to Schrank.

“By 2035, about 15 to 20% of the European regional market could run on hydrogen,” Alexandre Charpentier, a rail expert at Roland Berger, confirmed to AFP.

Hydrogen trains are particularly relevant for small regional lines, where the cost of switching to electric power is too high compared to the profitability of the route. Currently, about one out of every two regional trains in Europe runs on diesel.

Alstom’s competitors have also entered the race. Last May, the German company Siemens unveiled a prototype train with the Deutsche Bahn, with a view to putting it into service as early as 2024. But despite these attractive prospects, “there are real barriers,” says the expert.

Trains are not the only ones to be thirsty for hydrogen. The entire transport sector, whether road or air, as well as heavy industry, particularly the steel and chemical industries, are counting on this technology to reduce their CO2 emissions.

Resource still scarce

Even though Germany announced an ambitious €7 billion plan in 2020 to become the leader in hydrogen technologies within a decade, the country – like all of Europe – still lacks infrastructure for both production and transportation, and requires huge investments.

“For this reason, we do not see a 100% replacement of diesel trains with hydrogen,” according to Charpentier.

Moreover, hydrogen is not necessarily decarbonized: only “green hydrogen”, manufactured using renewable energy, is considered sustainable by experts.

Other manufacturing methods exist, much more common, but they emit greenhouse gases because they are made from fossil fuels.

Proof that the resource is lacking: the Lower Saxony line should, initially, use hydrogen by-products from certain industries, such as chemicals.

According to the French research institute IFP, which specializes in energy issues, 95% of hydrogen is currently “derived from the transformation of fossil fuels, almost half of which is derived from natural gas”.

However, Europe is already facing tensions over its supply of Russian natural gas, against the backdrop of the standoff with Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

“Political decisions will have to prioritize where hydrogen production will or will not go,” says Charpentier.

Germany will also have to import massively to meet its needs. Partnerships have recently been signed with India and Morocco, and an agreement to import hydrogen from Canada was on the agenda during Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to that country this week.

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