What happens when you put salesmen and government staffers in the same room with billions of dollars at stake? We’re about to find out.
The most telling moment of the day came early on Thursday at a Toronto conference, sponsored by the Ontario provincial government, on the virtues of hydrogen-fuelled trains. A presenter from the United States Department of Energy asked how many people in the room had driven a fuel-cell-powered car with hydrogen fuel, and at least two dozen hands went up in a room with 200 or so people in it.
That is way more than you’d see in any random sample, and more even than you’d expect in a survey of general transit fans. But this wasn’t a random sample, and the audience wasn’t neutral or disinterested. It was a room full of fans of hydrogen fuel cells talking to other fans of hydrogen fuel cells about how great hydrogen fuel cells are. On its own, this would be deeply nerdy but not worrisome. (Some reporters are also nerds.) But the fact that the Liberal government is considering how to spend $13 billion or so electrifying the GO rail network, means it’s also an important question of public policy.
As originally envisioned by Metrolinx, the electrification of the GO rail network would be based on well-known, tested technology: electric trainsets powered by overhead wires. But earlier this year, the government announced it was going to investigate whether it made sense for Ontario to opt for an untested alternative: trains powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which produce no flame, smoke, or carbon dioxide.
The pitch by hydrogen rail (or “hydrail”) advocates is simple: it’s potentially as clean as using electricity directly, and obviates the substantial expense of building those overhead wires. In Ontario’s case, there’s also the possibility that hydrogen could be produced using cheap, overnight electricity, while trains running beneath wires would necessarily be using electricity at the most expensive times of day.
Potentially. Possibility. Maybe. Hopefully. It’s an appealing technological vision, but nobody in the world has done anything with hydrail on the scale of GO’s electrification plan. Alstom just signed a deal with the German state of Lower Saxony for 14 trains, and Siemens has also begun design work on a hydrogen light rail vehicle, but these aren’t the kind of trains Metrolinx is looking for. Metrolinx is looking for a two-car trainset with two levels, like GO’s current passenger cars, or possibly a fuel-cell locomotive that could be a “drop-in” replacement for their current diesel engines.
In short, Metrolinx is asking for private companies to bid to make something that doesn’t currently exist. The costs are a big question mark. So is the performance. One of the reasons the government was going to go with overhead wires was that electric trains can accelerate faster than their diesel counterparts, allowing a railway to run more vehicles in and out of stations, safely. That means more frequent train service for riders. Can Metrolinx find a hydrogen train vendor that can meet those specs while delivering the number of trains needed by the 2025 deadline?