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The future of rail: battery vs hydrogen

In the quest for sustainable rail travel, the debate rages on between two contenders, hydrogen vs. battery-powered trains. Siemens Mobility is exploring why both deserve a spotlight.

When it comes to the core technology, both hydrogen and battery-driven trains share a foundation – an electric drive train powered by controlled motors. Batteries are integral for swift acceleration and crucial energy recuperation during braking. Hydrogen trains incorporate an additional element – a fuel cell sustained by high-pressure hydrogen tanks, ensuring continuous battery recharge.

In Australia, the transport sector ranks as the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 21 per cent of the nation’s total emissions. Furthermore, transport emissions have experienced the highest growth rate compared to other sectors. Notably, Australia’s per capita transport emissions exceed the OECD average by 45 per cent.

It is important that the move to net-zero is a transition, but there is a caveat in that it can’t be achieved with the flick of a switch that solves all the issues the country is facing. Long-term investment is required from across the energy, transport, and infrastructure sectors to support the journey to net-zero.

This will require commitment, alignment, coordination and communication between governments, infrastructure managers and train operators. But the results of this work will mean positive benefits for stakeholders and passengers, and this helps bring the transportation sector closer to the goal of decarbonisation and Australia’s goal of net-zero by 2050.

Innovative advantages and challenges of hydrogen-powered trains

As Albrecht Neumann, CEO for Rolling Stock at Siemens Mobility explains, hydrogen-powered trains are a leap forward in innovation.

“With an impressive range of up to 1200 km and a swift 15-minute refuelling time, trains like the Mireo Plus H are formidable contenders,” he said.

The organisation believes the different technologies both have a place in the modern rail setting. IMAGE:Siemens Mobility

“The only by-product of a hydrogen fuel cell is water, underlining the environmental integrity of this technology.”

Hydrogen can be produced through electrolysis, tapping into green energy sources like wind or solar power. This leads to a carbon-neutral operation, making a direct contribution to emissions reduction.

The Australian government has announced $2 billion for the Hydrogen Headstart initiative for green hydrogen projects to be built in Australia, and to cover the commercial gap between the cost of hydrogen production from renewables and the current market price. This can support the revolutionising of Australia’s rail sector to create a cleaner, more efficient rail network.

However, the journey towards hydrogen-powered trains isn’t without challenges. Building refuelling stations, hydrogen production, and distribution all require substantial investment.

Also, the current cost per kilometre (km) for hydrogen fuel is approximately three times that of battery-powered alternatives. It’s this balance between benefits and challenges that guides the Siemens Mobility approach to portfolio decisions.

Hydrogen as a viable alternative to diesel locomotives

Looking ahead, hydrogen could establish itself as a viable alternative to diesel locomotives, particularly in regions like Australia and the USA.

Already, legislation in California mandates deposits of up to USD $1 million (depending on emissions value) for diesel operators into a trust account, creating a financial incentive to explore environmentally friendly technologies. Operators have the discretion to utilise the funds to promote environmentally friendly technologies. Substantial sums accrue in these accounts, while the introduction of new diesel locomotives into service is prohibited. This transition aligns with Siemens Mobility’s vision for a sustainable future in rail transport.

Battery-powered trains – balancing advantages and drawbacks

Battery-powered trains are a cost-effective solution for shorter ranges, especially on routes with electrified tracks. They align seamlessly with the imperative for a greener future, especially when paired with electricity from renewable sources.

Yet, it’s crucial to acknowledge the technology’s limitations. As of now, battery-powered trains face challenges related to their range per charge.

After approximately 120 km, these trains require a minimum one-hour recharge. The environmental impact of battery production is another factor demanding attention and further emphasises the importance of holistic sustainability assessments, urging the industry to explore more eco-friendly battery manufacturing techniques.

Complementary strengths – why both propulsions are vital for rail innovation

In the choice between hydrogen and battery propulsion, it’s clear that both technologies have their place. Battery technology offers simplicity, while hydrogen provides higher ranges.

These technologies don’t compete; they complement each other seamlessly, ensuring a versatile and sustainable future for rail travel. This dual approach allows Siemens Mobility to cater to diverse operational needs, from short-haul routes to long-distance journeys, and tackle varying environmental challenges head-on.

Embracing both hydrogen and battery propulsion technologies is not just an option, it’s a strategic imperative for shaping the future of rail transport.

The rail industry knows this isn’t something it can solve overnight, and it is a longer term transition to support Australia’s net-zero targets. As much as Siemens Mobility want to support customers to reach net-zero it understands there is a financial consideration that needs to be acknowledged in the journey.