Are hydrogen fuel-cells really an option for powering GO Transit trains?

That's the central question that Metrolinx—the organizers of recent symposium on hydrail technology—asked participants to help them answer.

Metrolinx symposium on using hydrogen fuel cells to power GO trainsMinister Del Duca speaks at the hydrail symposium, image, @StevenDelDuca

More than 500 attendees from Canada, the United States and elsewhere in the world packed the Trading Floor of the Design Exchange on Bay Street during the recent event. They viewed presentations and listened to panel discussions by academics, entrepreneurs and government officials who told them about how hydrogen fuel cells work, how countries around the world are developing the technology and that major international corporations, including Hyundai, Honda, BMW and Shell, among many others, are including hydrogen or hydrogen fuel-cells in current and future product lines.

And, while the symposium's experts mostly provided positive views of the possibilities of hydrogen they also acknowledged a number of challenges to immediate widespread use.

Ontario's Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, supplied the keynote speech of the event. The minister explained his personal interest in hydrail and hydrogen as a fuel source but also outlined why he believes the future of GO is with the fuel-cells.

Minister Del Duca had first officially announced that Metrolinx was interested in fuel cells during a media event last June at the Willowbrook Maintenance Facility near Mimico GO Station. Since then, Metrolinx has launched a request for proposals for studying the feasibility of hydrogen fuel cells powering trains and received the "go-ahead" from its board to continue to study the power source.

For those visiting from out of town to attend the symposium, the minister first set Ontario's regional rail system in context:

"By 2041, which, in planning terms is not that far away, population and job growth across the Greater Golden Horseshoe is forecast to grow from nine million to 13.5 million people and from 4.5 million to 6.3 million jobs. And, in the next 10 to 20 years, the number of people coming through Union Station every day will double. So, we need to be ready. We will be ready."

Metrolinx symposium on using hydrogen fuel cells to power GO trainsMetrolinx CEO Phil Verster at the hydrail symposium, image, @metrolinx

DelDuca emphasized the provincial government's commitment to addressing climate change and improving air quality for Ontarians by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

"A big part of that reduction focuses on Ontario's transportation sector—and that's because it has to. The sector is the biggest producer of greenhouse gases in Ontario and it contributed about 33 percent of our total in 2015. By contrast, our electricity sector has very low GHG emissions, contributing about three percent in that same year. And that's exactly why [we're] taking important steps to decrease transportation-sector emissions by increasing the availability of lower-carbon fuel, increasing the use of electric vehicles, encouraging cycling and walking, increasing the use of low-carbon trucks and buses and building transformative rapid-transit projects."

Del Duca reminded attendees that the government of Ontario has already committed to electrifying large segments of its GO rail network by 2025. "Electrifying those lines has long been a key part of our emissions-reduction targets and a key commitment of our government," he said. "And this brings me to all of you and our decision to look at the feasibility of hydrogen fuel for this project."

He explained to the audience that a recent trip made him even more enthusiastic about the possibilities of hydrail in Ontario. He said, "As part of my trip to Europe—a continent on which hydrogen trains are set to be deployed shortly—I had the opportunity to sit down with researchers at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, individuals who are studying the application of hydrogen technology and propulsion on railways... In that conversation, I was both fascinated and encouraged from what I heard."

The minister reassured Ontario voters who worry about the impact of new things—as hydrogen-fuelled trains definitely would be.

"I know that some people find change disruptive and unsettling. And I also know that we're not always convinced about which is the right way to go or dealing with things that are disruptive and new, that are right at the leading edge. And that's perfectly understandable. And, not only understandable but responsible... But, we have a duty to be bold."

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

He added, "For me, the scale of our collective challenge is enormous. And, the risk of falling short because we chose to be timid is greater than being open to new ways of thinking and, most importantly, new ways of acting. Because, here in Ontario right now, we have an opportunity, and I would say an obligation, to be leaders in clean transportation.

"We know that hydrogen is relatively minor source of energy at this particular moment, but that's changing and the conversations I've had [with people presenting during the symposium] convinces me that things are changing fast. I think that Ontario is well-positioned to not only be at the leading edge, but to get ahead of the curve if we play our cards right."

The minister said that already thousands of hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicles—mostly fork lifts and buses—operate in the United States, while at least 2,000 automobiles are operating throughout the world. While refueling infrastructure is still scarce, that, too will change as manufacturers build and sell more and more vehicles using hydrogen.

However, he pointed out, "Because Canada produces one-tenth of the world's hydrogen fuel, this represents a major economic opportunity in the growing green-resources sector.

He continued, "That brings me to my final point—why I believe hydrail is so important... to the people of Ontario. First of all, we know that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles produce very little, if any, greenhouse gas emissions, so it's a win, of course, for our environment.

"We also know that German trains run on a fuel cell built by a manufacturer whose Canadian operations are based right here in the GTHA, in Mississauga, and that technology is being exported to other parts of the world. From my perspective, this is a win for Ontario-based know-how and that's good news for our province's economy.

The components of an integrated hydrail system, image, Metrolinx

"And we also know that an electrified GO rail network will also mean faster and more reliable service, reduce train-engine noise as our trains pull in and out of our stations and fewer vehicles on our roads—far fewer vehicles on our roads—making it easier to move people and goods from one end of the region to the other.

"So, fundamentally, it's an important win for the quality of life for the people that we're proud to represent. But, it's even bigger than that. This is about vision. This is about aspiration. This is about innovation."

However, even though the government is studying alternatives to traditional methods of powering trains, that won't stall plans to proceed with electrification.

"I want to be perfectly clear. One way or the other, we will be running electrified trains on the GO rail network, as promised, by 2024–2025. That is the commitment we made to the people of Ontario. It's at the backbone of the mandate the premier and our government received from the people in 2014 and it's something that we will deliver. And that will occur, whether via traditional overhead wires or via hydrail."

To conclude his remarks, the minister quoted from another visionary, although not likely one who visualized the possibility of hydrogen to power trains.

"I'm reminded of something that Michelangelo once said: 'The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and that we miss it, it's that we aim too low and we reach it.'

"Yes, compared to some places in our world, Ontario is young. But that's actually our advantage. Unlike Europe, our past isn't so deeply written across the landscape that we no longer have room to write our future. And our habits are not so deeply ingrained that we cannot change them."

So are hydrogen fuel cells really a viable option? The world is quickly waking up to the possibilities, suggesting that the plan to use them to fuel GO trains isn't just a lot of, well, gas. According to a recent Associated Press article in the Toronto Star, Toyota is betting that they are the key to a carbon-free future. It's banking on its Mirai model as the prototype for that future—a hydrogen-fuelled car that can run for 502 kilometres per fuelling and which fuels as quickly as a regular car. Meanwhile, in Germany, local transit agencies have agreed to buy Coradia iLint light rail cars from Alstom, which use the cells, and operate them in regular service next year.

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

UrbanToronto.ca will be posting more articles detailing the symposium, looking at how private and public-sector organizations around the world are adapting hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells. We'll also report on some of the challenges that Metrolinx may face in implementing fuel cells in GO trains.

Join the conversation by posting your comments in the form at the bottom of this page, or by contributing to the GO electrification discussion thread on UrbanToronto's Forum.