Runs from Quebec City to Baie-Saint-Paul until September
The first hydrogen-powered train in North America is taking riders on a two-and-a-half hour trip through central Quebec this summer.
It's a demonstration that launched earlier this month to show how electricity stored as hydrogen can replace diesel fuel on railways where installing electrified rails or overhead wires would be challenging.
Advocates for the use of hydrogen in heavy transportation say it could raise awareness and boost confidence in the emerging technology in North America.
The tourist train made by French company Alstom runs from Montmorency Falls in Quebec City to Baie-Saint-Paul — partway along the Train de Charlevoix route — on Wednesday through Sunday until Sept. 30, carrying up to 120 people in two rail cars.
Nancy Belley, general manager of Réseau Charlevoix, the private railway that runs the train, says it's an extraordinary chance for her company. She told CBC News in French that riding the train is like being in another world.
"When you think that you've left your car behind, and get on board a train that emits water vapour, you feel that you're part of an important decarbonization movement in Quebec," she said.
The train uses about 50 kilograms of hydrogen a day, estimates Serge Harnois, CEO of Harnois Énergies, which supplies the fuel. That replaces about 500 litres of diesel that would be burned during the journey.
While fossil fuels may be peaking, "we are at the beginning of the history of hydrogen," said Harnois.
Why the train is being tested in Quebec
The same model of train, known as the Coradia iLint, has previously carried passengers in eight European countries. Germany, purchased a version which uses Canadian-made fuel cells for a hydrogen-only route last year.
Belley says Alstom approached Réseau Charlevoix and Groupe Le Massif, which owns the rails, because it was looking for somewhere in North America to test its train. The Train de Charlevoix route was ideal as it already used European technology, and the new train was a good fit for the existing infrastructure.
Alstom said this week that the commercial operation of the train will allow it and its partners to see what's needed to develop "an ecosystem for hydrogen propulsion technology" in North America.
The Quebec government said in February that it was investing $3 million in the $8 million project. At the time, Environment Minister Benoit Charette said it was part of the province's plan for a green economy by 2030, which relies on hydrogen to decarbonize parts of the economy where conventionalelectrification isn't possible.
So far, Belley says, it seems like the North American regulations can work with a European train.
And, she says, it also appears that this technology lends itself well to low-density areas, like the rural Charlevoix region, where transportation might otherwise be harder to electrify.
Harnois rode on the train when it launched on June 17, and says it was very quiet and comfortable compared to the noisy diesel train with bad suspension that ran on that line before, spewing black smoke behind it.
Instead, the new train emits only water vapour.
The vapour is generated when the train takes hydrogen gas from its tank, combines it with oxygen in the air and combines that in a fuel cell to generate electricity.
Where does the hydrogen come from?
Harnois Énergies, based in Quebec City, produces the hydrogen using an electrolyzer, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. Because the electricity is from Hydro-Quebec — which is 94 per cent hydro-generated, five per cent by wind and almost fully decarbonized — the resulting hydrogen is considered green.
Alstom approached the company to supply hydrogen as it was able to bring the gas to the pressure needed for the purposes of this project.
A diesel-powered truck carries the hydrogen to the train station for refuelling.
But Harnois says the fuel would ideally one day be produced on site.
For refueling, the full hydrogen tank on the truck is connected to the empty tank on the train, and the pressure difference causes the hydrogen to flow from one to the other. A regulator controls the flow so it doesn't get too hot. The fuelling takes about an hour.
The goal is for the train to eventually be able to run the full route, from Quebec City to La Malbaie. But Belley says that will require further testing, as that part of the railway is very curvy, and the hydrogen train's wheels aren't in the same place as those of its diesel predecessor.
Belley says the train will not return next summer, as it's a demonstration unit that will travel to other cities.
However, she said the railway would like to buy one. "Because we know…we've confirmed that it's the kind of train that could be green in a place like ours."
Why hydrogen for trains?
While many trains in Europe run on electric rails or are powered by overhead wires, Canada's long distances and low density are considered a challenge for electric trains.
Meanwhile, CP Rail and Southern Railway of B.C. are testing hydrogen-powered trains because they are more similar to diesel. They are expected to use a similar refuelling infrastructure to diesel and have similar refuelling times. CP says it plans to operate three hydrogen locomotives by the end of the year.
Robert Stasko, executive director of the Ontario-based Hydrogen Business Council, said the launch of a hydrogen passenger train is "a very big deal."
"I think the most important thing that's going to come out of it is people's awareness and comfort with the technology," he said.
He said Alstom, which has already sold 41 hydrogen trains in Europe, hopes to gain a foothold in North America.
"We, of course, think it's a great idea," he said. "I'd love to see something like that in Ontario for instance, running between Union Station and Pearson Airport to replace the diesel-operated UP Express right now."
He also hopes that familiarity with the train technology will make decision-makers consider hydrogen for other applications, such as long-haul trucking, where he sees the biggest opportunity.
Gord Lovegrove, an associate professor at the UBC School of Engineering in Kelowna, says, on one hand, the technology has already been proven in Europe.
On the other hand, the hydrogen Train de Charlevoix is a demonstration that still needs to get through the hurdle of being accepted by Canadian regulators.
And Canada still has other challenges, he said — ramping up green hydrogen production (most hydrogen in the country is produced from methane), reducing its cost, improving hydrogen storage and transport technology to make it more efficient and easier to handle, and training the workforce to maintain hydrogen vehicles.
"It's not that difficult," he said, "but it needs to start happening."
Lovegrove is currently working on a hydrogen locomotive in partnership with Southern Railway of British Columbia. He hopes to begin testing components this summer, and have it in full commercial service next summer.
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