A long-term world transition to hydrail now seems inevitable

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Hydrail is to Diesel as Diesel was to SteamMOORESVILLE – Last month, the English online edition of The People’s Daily announced the introduction of China’s first hydrail locomotive. Back in September of 2007, Bombardier and the Province of Ontario were already in talks about building hydrail trains in Canada.

Earlier in December, a Bombardier press release announced that the company and China’s Ministry of Railways have signed a “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) aimed at “strengthening their strategic partnership in the development of various products and systems, including rolling stock..” 

Bombardier’s André Navarri said that they are looking forward “…to working together in the development of new, game-changing technologies.”

The Bombardier press release did not mention hydrail or allude to it in any recognizable way. But, given what’s going on around the world, it seems likely that this “Strategic Cooperation Agreement” will speed-up the transition from diesel to hydrogen fuel cell rail traction, both in China and elsewhere.

This summer the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation’s International Centre for Hydrogen Energy Technology (UNIDO-ICHET) hosted the Sixth International Hydrail Conference in Istanbul, partnering with the Turkish State Railways; North Carolina’s Appalachian State University; and the Mooresville, NC, Chamber of Commerce. UNIDO-ICHET’s motive in hosting the hydrail conference was to further its charter objective: helping developing countries to bypass the petroleum era and move directly toward the hydrogen economy.

Hydrail is one of the easiest early steps in that direction. International Hydrail Conferences have been held in the US (’05, ’07, ’09), Denmark and Spain. Governments, industries and academic organizations from about fourteen countries and the European Union have participated in them. The 2011 Hydrail Conference is scheduled for Seoul, South Korea, next summer.

Soon after the 2010 Hydrail Conference, one of Turkey’s premier news sources, the Hürriyet News and Economic Review ran a story entitled “Turkey may lead global hydrail industry.” 

Japan has already demonstrated two hydrail commuter trains, one built by the East Japan Railway Company and the other by the government Railway Transportation Research Institute. FEVE, a narrow-gage railway operated by the Government of Spain, has announced plans for a hydrail passenger demonstration project in the northern part of the country. 

In the US, it’s now over a year since BNSF Railway placed a full-sized hydrail switch engine in service in California.

A long-term world transition to hydrail now seems inevitable. Bio-fuels compete with food production for land and other scarce resources and it’s hard to imagine putting a nation’s strategic heavy transportation requirements at the mercy of rainfall and other climatic unpredictables. 

Track electrification is prohibitively capital- and maintenance-intensive for deployment beyond dedicated high-speed routes. Copper supplies are finite and its production is environmentally problematic. Although battery evolution may mitigate the problem, electric traction energy must generally be supplied in real-time, competing with other peak-load demand.

On the other hand, the same technologies that make hydrogen attractive for matching real-time electric loads with intermittent clean energy sources also make it attractive for rail which, unlike road vehicles, does not required ubiquitous fueling and maintenance facilities to be practical. The resurgence of nuclear evolution and US and Canadian advances toward thermochemical water splitting are placing cheap, zerocarbon mass production of hydrogen within sight.

Every technology has its day and fades. Steam created railroads. It opened up the American West and the Russian East before oil displaced it.

Now price volatility, eventual supply exhaust, pollution and climate impact are hooting petroleum off the stage. And hydrogen is in the wings, waiting to join China in the spotlight.

Stan Thompson

Stan Thompson, a retired AT&T futurist and planner, is a frequent writer on hydrail and helps convene the annual International Hydrail Conferences. For more information please visit www.hydrail.org