According to Roland Berger’s World Rail Market Study, hydrogen trains offer the greatest opportunities to make routes without electrification more sustainable. Regarding main lines in Europe, around 60 percent of the European rail network is electrified and 80 percent of traffic is running on these lines, according to the report ‘Electrification of the Transport System’ of the European Union, dating from 2017. In the latest Rail Market Monitoring report from the EU from 2021, also no data more recent than 2018 for the Europe-wide electrification is published.
Diesel trains still largely run on the non-electrified routes today. Due to CO2 emissions and high fuel costs, ‘obsolete’ and ‘polluting’ diesel trains have increasingly lost popularity among rail operators. In Germany, the country with Europe’s largest railway network, there is still quite a lot of regional use of diesel trains, although electrification is increasingly spearheaded there too to make the railways more sustainable.
Near Hamburg, a fleet of 14 diesel trains was replaced by hydrogen trains on a 100-kilometre route near Bremerhaven, a world first as it was the first railway line to run entirely on hydrogen. The ambition of Alstom, the company that supplied the trains in Germany, is to replace some 3,000 more regional diesel trains with hydrogen trains in the coming years.
Replacing diesel trains with hydrogen trains does come with a hefty price tag. Roland Berger’s study therefore indicates that hefty investments are needed. Germany already presented a plan in 2020 to become the world leader in hydrogen technologies within a decade. This involves a hefty investment of 7 billion euros. So far, the necessary hydrogen infrastructure is not yet in place, leaving it questionable whether Germany will meet their own goal within the target timeframe.
Also, Roland Berger reports, not all European countries have the financial capacity to invest in hydrogen trains. “This is why we do not foresee a 100 per cent replacement of diesel trains by hydrogen”, says Alexandre Charpentier, rail transport expert at Roland Berger.
Although hydrogen, a chemical element, is more environmentally friendly than high-emission fossil fuels, it is not necessarily always environmentally friendly. Only green hydrogen, produced from renewable energy, is considered fully sustainable. French research institute IFP, which specialises in energy issues, says 95 per cent of hydrogen currently used comes from fossil fuels, half of which is natural gas. So switching from diesel to hydrogen is certainly no more sustainable than full electrification, but the latter is an expensive and often time-consuming process, which is why for regional lines with low use, use of green hydrogen is a viable option to lower emissions.