Today, September 15, Metrolinx issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for what it calls "Bi-Level Electric Multiple Unit Concept Design Services". In a press release, the Ontario Government describes the purpose of the RFP by stating the following: "As part of planning the electrification, Ontario is undertaking a feasibility study on the use of hydrogen fuel cells. Recent advances in the use of hydrogen fuel 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. The Hydrogen Rail (Hydrail) Feasibility Study will inform a decision on how Ontario will proceed with the electrification of GO rail services."
This announcement is a follow-up to a press release back in June, in which Metrolinx announced the commencement of the Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP) for electrification of many GO corridors, for which a Notice of Commencement was also issued. In addition to announcing the electrification, the Province also announced that they would investigate the possibility of potentially using hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to overhead wires.
However, the Notice makes no reference to the hydrogen fuel cells, and describes the project as undertaking "design and implementation of a traction power supply system and power distribution components located along and within the vicinity of the rail corridors". The Notice even goes so far as to include a map detailing the proposed locations (shown below) of Traction Power Substations, Paralleling Stations, and Switching Stations, which are all requirements for conventional overhead wiring to run an electrified train service.
While Metrolinx has made no secret of its desire to move much of the GTHA's transit service away from diesel and towards 'greener' options as part of the Ontario Government's push to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions, the timing of this announcement is certainly interesting. Metrolinx has been studying the electrification of the GO network since 2009, with a final report released in December 2010 (while GO has conducted studies on electrification of the GO network dating back to 1980, this 2010 report was the first comprehensive report conducted by Metrolinx).
In that report, the use of hydrogen fuel cells is mentioned only four times, all of which fall under the banner of "Alternative Rolling Stock Technologies and Fuels". Suffice to say, the report gives hydrogen fuel cells only a brief mention, and the technology was explicitly not one of the four technology types carried forward for further study (the four being Diesel Locomotives with bi‐level coaches, Electric Locomotives with bi‐level coaches, Electric Multiple Units with bi‐level coaches, and Dual‐Mode Locomotives with bi‐level coaches).
Even after the prospect of electrification re-emerged after the Regional Express Rail (RER) plan was announced as part of the 2014 Provincial Election and the current process began with public meetings back in February 2016, no mention of hydrogen fuel cells could be found in any of the documentation. All of this certainly raises the question 'why now?'. Why was this investigation not begun around the same time as the electrification process began? Why wait until you have already begun the TPAP process for physical electrification to start looking at alternatives?
The news release specifically mentions that this study is to find "an alternative to conventional overhead wires". However, one of the best applications of hydrogen fuel cell technology may be as a supplement to overhead wiring, not as a replacement for it. There are many portions of the GO network, most notably the Milton Line, the outer section of the Kitchener Line, and the future Niagara Falls extension, that do not fall under the electrification plan as shown above. Rather than running diesel locomotives on these sections, they could be converted to run hydrogen fuel cell locomotives. This could provide a 'bridge' between Greenhouse Gas-emitting diesel, and virtually GHG-free electric (assuming the electricity used is produced from renewable sources).
The RFP closes on October 12th, and the results are expected to be released by the end of 2017, with, as the news release puts it, "a decision on electrification technology to follow". Stay tuned.
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