Metrolinx is continuing to examine the potential of using hydrogen fuel cells to power GO and UP Express trains, its board of directors learned this week.

Mark Ciavarro, the regional transit agency's vice-president for regional express rail implementation told the board that Metrolinx is proceeding with a feasibility study of how it could configure the hydrogen fuel-cell rail technology—or "hydrail", for short—to deliver the service levels it proposes for its regional express rail (RER) program.

GO's proposal for Regional Express Rail, or RER, image, Metrolinx

Ciavarro explained that Germany has a long history with hydrogen in technology. As early as 2002, the German government identified hydrogen and hydrogen-fuel-cell technology as essential to the future of mobility and energy supply. That year, it established the Clean Energy Partnership as a joint venture between government and industry to test the suitability of hydrogen as a fuel.

In 2014, the German federal Ministry for Transport and Digital Infrastructure committed €7.9 million to help develop hydrail vehicles. Recently, the Coradia iLint, the world’s first fuel-cell passenger train, successfully completed its test run, according to its French makers, Alstom. The company tested the train on its own track in Salzgitter, Lower Saxony, Germany. It plans passenger test runs in early 2018. Several German states have signed letters of intent to buy the trains once Alstom puts them into production, probably in 2019. The German / French test train uses fuel cells from Hydrogenics, a Mississauga-based company.

Coradia iLint regional train, Salzgitter (Germany), copyright Alstom / Michael Wittwer

The Alstom models for Germany, however, are more like light rail transit vehicles instead of the heavy-rail locomotives that GO uses. They may not be suitable for providing longer distance commuter trips that GO passengers require.

So, Metrolinx is undertaking this project to understand whether manufacturers can build bi-level hydrail EMUs (electrical multiple units – referring to electric-powered multiple-unit trains that are self-propelling) that can also supply the frequent RER service that Metrolinx demands. It also wants to review the impact of integrating hydrail into bi-level EMU trains that are available from the major rail vehicle manufacturers, particularly examining seating capacity and vehicle performance.

In September, Metrolinx issued a request for proposals for concept designs of such vehicles. It intends to engage as many as four manufacturers to prepare concepts, starting in November and finishing by next March. It will pay each manufacturer a stipend, if they submit a completed design package by the end of this period. It is also hiring Hydrogenics to prepare a reference design kit for the companies and to support them during the design phase.

Metrolinx also recently completed the environmental assessment for its plan to electrify its rail network. Traditionally, electrifying trains requires railroads or transit agencies to build major infrastructure, including power stations, switching stations, transmission lines, catenary (or overhead wiring) along each line and pylons to support the catenary. It may also require them to rebuild other infrastructure, including raising overpasses and station roofs to support both the wiring and pantographs--the connectors between trains and power source.

Map of the proposed infrastructure to electrify the GO network, image, Metrolinx

But, using fuel cells may completely transform that proposal. A fuel cell converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through an electro-chemical reaction of hydrogen-containing fuel with oxygen or another agent. Fuel cells are different from batteries in requiring a continuous source of fuel and oxygen (usually from the air) to sustain the chemical reaction, whereas, in a battery, the chemical energy comes from chemicals already present. A fuel cell can produce electricity continuously for as long as it has a supply of fuel and oxygen.

The components of an integrated hydrail system, image, Metrolinx

The United Kingdom's The Telegraph reports that "the Alsom train operates using a hydrogen fuel tank, stored on the roof of the vehicle, that, in turn, powers a fuel cell to produce electrical energy, its only emission being steam and condensed water while operating with a low level of noise."

In its article, The Telegraph cites the train manufacturer's claims that the test train has enough on-board hydrogen storage capacity for a 800-kilometre (497-mile) range, and quotes a top speed of 140 kilometres per hour (87 miles per hour).

Ciavarro said that, if Metrolinx decided to use hydrail, it would likely use surplus power to electrolyze–trigger the electro-chemical reaction to create hydrogen—overnight. That's because generating stations continue to produce energy 24 hours a day, even though demand is low at night.

The board's chair, Robert S. Pritchard cautioned the directors that Metrolinx intends to proceed with electrification—with or without hydrogen. "We can't wait. We need to proceed with electrification now, using traditional means", he said. "At the same time, however, we need to be aware of new developments and adjust our plans when necessary. We don't want to be riding a horse-and-buggy, when everyone else is flying a jet plane." Pritchard said Metrolinx would adopt the hydrail technology when it's feasible to do so.

Metrolinx plans to electrify the UP Express and GO's Lakeshore, Kitchener, Barrie and Stouffville lines by 2025, image, Metrolinx

Pritchard echoed Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, who announced the hydrail feasibility study in June. Del Duca told reporters that technology is moving such a quick pace that Ontario "can't afford to be left behind. We need to know that if this technology has been used elsewhere and will be available soon enough for us to deliver on our promise of electrification and RER by 2025.

Hydrogen fuel cells, GO Transit, Trains, Electrification, Regional express railOntario Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, announcing the feasibility study at GO's Willowbrook yard in June, image, Ministry of Transportation.

Metrolinx and the Ontario government also plan to work with the University of Toronto to bring together fuel-cell industry leaders during a symposium next month. The symposium will explore the potential of applying the technology in electrifying the GO rail network. Attendees will hear from speakers about projects that use hydrogen fuel technology around the world right now. Later, they'll focus more closely on applying this technology in a hydrail system.

We will keep you updated as more information becomes available and as Metrolinx proceeds. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment in the space on this page, or add your voice to the ongoing conversation in our GO Electrification Forum thread.