The Government of Ontario is getting closer to determining whether hydrogen fuel-cell technology is a viable means to power GO Transit and Union Pearson Express trains—or whether the plan is just so much, well, gas. Kathryn McGarry, Ontario's new Minister of Transportation visited the MaRS Centre in Toronto this week to release the government's hydrogen rail (or "hydrail") feasibility study.

Metrolinx chief executive officer Phil at MaRS with Minister McGarry at right, image, Metrolinx

"The potential benefit of hydrogen fuel cells compared to overhead wires makes exploring hydrogen rail technology worthwhile. Our government is taking the next step in assessing how this important technology could work for our own transit system," she said.

She also announced that Ontario proposes developing prototype rail vehicles to pilot the technology.

The province plans to "electrify" its rail network by 2025 as it transforms GO from a commuter transit system to a regional rapid-transit system. In December, regional transportation agency Metrolinx engaged CH2M HILL Canada Limited (now Jacobs Engineering Group Inc.), Ernst & Young Orenda Corporate Finance Inc., and Canadian Nuclear Labor to examine the feasibility of building and operating electrified rail service with hydrogen-powered trains at a cost comparable to conventional electrification with overhead wires.

With regional express rail, Metrolinx would operate frequent all-day, every-day service along GO rail lines, image, Metrolinx

The study's authors investigated the scale of a hydrail system, its costs and safety, the implications of implementing this system—and its risks and opportunities.

A software simulation model used data such as the types of trains and service patterns. The model generated results that included the amount of hydrogen that the system would need every day and the costs to set up and operate the system.

The study determined that the technology was indeed technically feasible for the trains and that the overall costs of building and operating a hydrail system are equivalent to the more conventional overhead electrification system. A number of potentially beneficial opportunities would result if Metrolinx implements hydrail, instead of electrifying the rail network through the conventional overhead catenary system.

Those opportunities would allow Metrolinx to:

  • start some electrified rail commuter services earlier than the 2025 target date;
  • operate electrified rail services over the whole GO Transit network;
  • share some of the costs with other users of hydrogen in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area; and
  • be a catalyst for expanding businesses with a hydrogen-technology focus and creating high-skill jobs.

Metrolinx intends to elecrify UP Express and large parts of the GO rail network, image, Metrolinx

However, the study's authors also warn that implementing hydrail on this scale and complexity, while innovative and offering benefits, also presents a different set of risks, when compared to other methods of powering trains. No one has yet developed as large a hydrail service as the province and Metrolinx have proposed for Southern Ontario.

With hydrail, the study investigators conclude, Metrolinx can achieve the frequent, all-day, two-way GO train service pattern it proposes for 2025 if it also considers key design factors. The factors include:

  • hydrail vehicles meet the expected power, range and reliability targets;
  • refueling the vehicles is efficient to meet the daily service schedule of the entire rail network; and
  • enough quantities of hydrogen are available to meet the daily needs of the system.

The map indicates the infrastructure Metrolinx would require with traditional overhead wiring on rail lines, image, Metrolinx

How would developing hydrail affect the network infrastructure, particularly rail vehicles? Currently, diesel engines power GO rail vehicles. A hydrogen fuel-cell locomotive would generate electricity to power the trains from hydrogen that is stored aboard the train.

Metrolinx plans to commission concept designs for such a locomotive and will then consider building a prototype that it could introduce into service on the GO Transit rail network. The prototype would gather valuable feedback on operations, performance, and reliability.

Alternatively, an electric multiple unit or EMU is a multiple unit train consisting of self-propelled carriages, using electricity as the power that drives the train. An EMU requires no separate locomotive. Ontario is working with train manufacturers Alstom and Siemens to produce concept designs that incorporate hydrogen fuel cells into bi-level trains similar to those GO currently uses.

Alstom has piloted its Coradia iLint trains, powered by hydrogen fuel cells, in Germany, image, Alstom

Metrolinx also intends to engage a contractor to upgrade the GO network using a design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) model. As part of the tender process, bidders can to propose both hydrail and overhead-wire technology to electrify the GO network. According to Metrolinx, the benefit of this DBFOM approach is it allows a single party to manage all inter-related decisions and oversee each phase of the process from design to maintenance. This makes sure that the entire system achieves optimal performance, which, in turn, can create efficiencies.

So, how would the system work? Electrolysis is the process of passing an electric current through water to split it back into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrail system would likely use electrolysis to produce the hydrogen it needs to operate.

A hydrogen fuel cell requires hydrogen gas and air to function. Oxygen from the air and hydrogen—when combined inside the fuel cell—creates electricity, water and heat. The fuel cell separates a flow of electrons to an external circuit that creates the electrical current. The electricity then charges batteries that are connected to electric motors which power the train.

The proposed hydrail system integrates all the elements to enable the trains to operate, image, Metrolinx, Hydrogenics

Then-transportation minister Steven Del Duca first revealed that his government intended to explore the possibilities of hydrogen fuel-cell technology to power trains last June. Since then, Ontario has taken several steps with the project, including commissioning this study and hosting a major symposium examining the technology.

The feasibility study report concludes by encouraging Metrolinx to undertake more exploratory work to reduce risks and gain a better understanding of the beneficial opportunities. The study investigators recommend that it:

  • continue to move forward with the hydrogen fuel-cell EMU and locomotive projects;
  • begin developing designs for the refuelling and hydrogen-production systems;
  • work with regulators to clarify the safety rules that will apply to the hydrail system;
  • develop a framework for bid proposals that it can use as part of the DBFOM procurement process; and
  • work with the Ontario government to develop a cross-government business case for hydrogen (including the hydrail system).

GO train on the Lakeshore West line near High Park in Toronto, image, Metrolinx

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.