5 things to know about the hydrogen trains coming to France

5 things to know about the hydrogen trains coming to France
The hydrogen train was tested in France on September 6th. Photo: FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP.
France has undertaken its first tests of the hydrogen-powered trains which are set to replace diesel trains along several regional lines. Here's what you need to know about this "zero emission train".

Hydrogen trains are one step closer to becoming a part of France’s public transport network after French company Alstom tested its Coradia iLint – the world’s first passenger train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, at a testing centre in the northern town of Valenciennes. 

French rail operator SNCF has already ordered several hydrogen-powered trains for use on the slower, regional networks.

How France compares to Europe

“Alstom has been working since 2013 on the launch of a regional train equipped with hydrogen fuel cells,” the company states, and the French train maker has already began supplying other European countries.

The train on display in Valenciennes was designed and assembled in Salzgitter in Germany, and it’s in Germany where passengers first got the opportunity to test out the new technology.

The first two hydrogen-powered trains entered commercial service in Germany as part of a trial between 2018 and 2020, and two German states have since ordered 41 trains which will begin regular service from 2022.

Successful trials have also taken place in Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden, while Italy ordered 14 hydrogen trains at the end of last year.

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How the trains will work

The trains the SNCF has ordered will not be identical to the one trialled earlier this month. The model used in France will in fact be a dual hydrogen-electric train, combining both energy sources.

As SNCF explains: “In hydrogen trains, conventional diesel engines are replaced with fuel cells, batteries and hydrogen tanks – a traction system that emits zero greenhouse gases.

“In the fuel cell, hydrogen from tanks on the train’s roof combines with oxygen in the air to produce electricity, which is stored in the batteries and used to power the train. And there’s only one waste product: water.”

The hydrogen trains will provide an alternative to diesel on non-electrified lines.

“Our rail network is 45 percent non-electrified,” transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said following the demonstration.

“Today there are more than 1,200 trains which run on diesel in France. We’re going to have to replace them over the next ten years,” he added.

According to SNCF: “Diesel still represents 26 percent of energy consumed by the TER regional trains and is responsible for 61 percent of their CO2 emissions.”

The dual-mode trains used in France will be able to carry 220 passengers at speeds of up to 160 km/h, and have an autonomy of up to 600 km on non-electrified stretches of railway.

Are there really zero emissions?

While it is true that the only thing the hydrogen train emits while running is water vapour, that doesn’t mean the rest of the process is environmentally friendly. The trains currently use “grey hydrogen”, which is made from natural gas, meaning CO2 emissions are released during the production process.

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The French government has however pledged €7 billion from now until 2030 towards the development of “green hydrogen”, produced via a process of ‘electrolysis’ which uses renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

When and where

Four French regions have placed orders with Alstom for hydrogen trains – Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne-Franche Comté, Grand Est and Occitanie – and they will be used on the TER regional train lines. An initial total of 12 trains have been ordered, with the option for two more.

Each region will receive three trains to be used on the following lines:

  • Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes : the Moulins–Clermont-Ferrand–Brioude line and the Lyon–Roanne–Clermont-Ferrand line
  • Bourgogne-Franche-Comté: the Dijon–Laroche-Migennes–Auxerre–Avallon line and the Dijon–Laroche-Migennes–Auxerre–Corbigny line
  • Occitanie: the Toulouse–Montréjeau–Luchon line
  • Grand Est: the Mulhouse–Thann–Kruth line

The first trial runs of the hydrogen-powered TERs are set to take place in 2023, but most passengers will have to wait a while longer before being able to test them out. They are due to begin service in 2025, three years behind Germany.

How much they will cost

One reason only four French regions have taken the plunge is the cost of the technology.

“These trains will be 30 percent more expensive, but will need less servicing and maintenance than diesel trains,” Yannick Legay, technical sales director at Alstom, told Capital.

The regions themselves will have to pay for the trains, although they will receive help from the state. The contract for the first 12 trains is worth almost €190 million.

“France has everything it needs to become a hydrogen champion: the French government is fully committed to turning this ambition into reality. We will be covering €47 million of development costs for France’s first regional hydrogen-powered train, ” Djebbari said in April.

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