Ontario's Minister of Transportation, Stephen Del Duca, delivered some electrifying news at a media event yesterday.

The minster told a gathering of reporters at GO Transit's Willowbrook maintenance facility near Mimico GO Station that the Ontario government and its regional transit agency, Metrolinx, were proceeding with plans to power GO trains with electricity. But that announcement, which was not unexpected, certainly wasn't the most electrifying part of his news. It's this: Del Duca says that his government is studying the feasibility of using hydrogen fuel cells to electrify GO and UP Express trains.

According to Del Duca, "Recent advances in using... cells to power electric trains in other jurisdictions makes it important that Ontario consider this clean electric technology as an alternative to conventional overhead wires."

Ontario Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, speaking at Willowbrook, image courtesy of MTO

The government plans to work with the University of Toronto to bring together fuel-cell industry leaders during a symposium this fall. The symposium will explore the potential of applying that technology in electrifying the GO rail network.

After consulting with the public during a series of meetings late last year, the government is now starting the formal transit project assessment process for converting GO trains from diesel-fuel to electricity. The minister says that electrifying the service is a major step toward creating GO's regional express rail (RER) network, with trains operating, at most, every 15 minutes at all times of the week.

GO's proposal for Regional Express Rail, or RER, 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.

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.

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

The UK's The Telegraph reports that "the 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).

Minister Del Duca explained that technology is moving at 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."

He also said that the German / French test train uses fuel cells from Hydrogenics, a Mississauga-based company.

Metrolinx has recently signed an agreement with Alstom to supply cars for its upcoming light-rail transit projects.

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

While the government investigates this alternative energy source, it's proceeding full-steam (or is that full-electrons?) ahead on electrifying the lines with more traditional methods. It formally kicked off the environmental assessment for electrification June 14 and plans to consult with the public at upcoming events June 26, 28 and 29 and July 5 in Mississauga, Ajax, Toronto and Newmarket. Its study will assess the impact of its proposal on the environment and nearby communities.

Traditionally, electrifying trains requires railroad companies 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 Metrolinx to rebuild other infrastructure, including raising overpasses and station roofs to support both the wiring and pantographs – the connectors between trains and power source.

If the government can determine that fuel-cells are viable for powering Ontario's then it can avoid the expense of all that extra construction, while delivering fast, frequent commuter trains that are quiet, "green" and, hopefully,  less demanding on the taxpayer.

We will keep you updated as more information becomes available and as Metrolinx proceeds with electrification. 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.