The world’s first 100% hydrogen railway has been given the go-ahead, paving the way for other rail operators to follow suit — but the scheme still has some way to go to back up its claim to be fully ‘zero emissions’.

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State-owned German transport agency LNVG plans to replace all 15 diesel passenger trains on its Cuxhaven to Buxtehude route in the north of the country with 14 hydrogen fuel cell-powered models made by French industrial giant Alstom by the end of the year.

The agency has already taken delivery of five Coradia iLint hydrogen trains, with a sixth due for delivery shortly, Alstom tells Recharge. The model has a range of 1,000km on a full tank of hydrogen, which will need to be filled up once a day.

Refuelling will take place halfway along the 79km route at Bremervörde, where engineering firm Linde this week inaugurated the world’s first passenger-train hydrogen refuelling station. The facility can dispense 1,600kg of compressed H2 per day, and has been built to integrate green hydrogen production in future.

Zero emissions?

Questions remain however over the “zero emissions” claim Alstom and LNVG have attached to this project — at least for now. The hydrogen will be sourced from Dow’s chemical plant in nearby Stade, which produces hydrogen as a by-product of chlor-alkali electrolysis, used to produce caustic soda and chlorine from salt water.

This industrial process is powered by electricity from Germany’s grid, which sourced 46.4% of its power from renewables in the first half of this year, but also 29.4% from coal and 14.6% from natural gas.

Nevertheless, the project could claim that by using the hydrogen in a fuel cell it prevents it from being vented into the atmosphere. According to analysis from the UK government, H2 is 33 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide.

And the route plans to switch over to locally produced green hydrogen, with Linde aiming to build an onsite electrolyser next to the Bremervörde refuelling station within the next two to three years, Recharge understands.

The size of the electrolyser is yet to be determined, but Linde plans to source the renewable power locally.

“The goal is to generate electricity via wind turbines and/or photovoltaics and directly supply the production,” Alexander Zoener, project manager of hydrogen applications at Linde, tells Recharge. “To reach this target we are staying in contact with operators for wind turbines which are located next to the hydrogen refuelling station.”

Two Coradia iLint models have been in operation on the route since 2018, and another in Vienna since 2020. And Alstom has taken the train for demonstrations in Poland, the Netherlands, France and the UK in the hope of drumming up business among rail operators working on non- or partially electrified routes, who are under pressure to slash their emissions.

Battery trains, some with a range of up to 80km, are also touted as a potential replacement for diesel-powered rail, especially on short or partially electrified lines where the battery can be charged by overhead cables as it travels.