All aboard the GO hydrogen express - Toronto Star
All aboard the GO hydrogen expressSometimes, it takes the words of a foul-mouthed, yet hilarious comedian in order to describe a project like this:
In the run-up to this month's election, the premier unveiled a plan to build a clean commuter train for GO Transit. Let's hope it wasn't political smoke
October 21, 2007
Now that the provincial Liberals have secured another four years in office, it's fair to ask whether Premier Dalton McGuinty's recent talk of locally manufactured, hydrogen-powered GO trains was just election rhetoric or a serious, forward-looking strategy to nurture innovation and create jobs.
McGuinty revealed last month that his government was in early-stage talks with Bombardier to design and develop an emission-free commuter train propelled by hydrogen-powered fuel cells and used by GO Transit.
"It's our goal to get a prototype on the rails here in Ontario within three years of the project launch," McGuinty announced during a visit to a Bombardier manufacturing plant in Thunder Bay.
The idea, while ambitious, carries a certain attraction. Job creation. Export potential. There's also the vision of clean trains being showcased to the world as they run through Canada's largest city.
But for every wide-eyed person in the room who got giddy at the thought of building a hydrogen economy in southern Ontario, there were also skeptics in the crowd who dismissed such a vision as political theatre.
After all, we've been here before with promises of hydrogen-powered cars (see "The Hype" below).
We don't have affordable, mass-produced hydrogen cars on the road today, but from an industrial perspective hydrogen is a $282 billion global market. The world relies heavily on hydrogen for fertilizer production, fuel upgrading, food processing and a number of other applications where demand for the zero-emission gas is growing.
Niche fuel-cell markets have also emerged, costs are slowly falling, and storage technologies are improving, even if profitability remains elusive. Fuel cells running on hydrogen are gaining traction for back-up power, while micro fuel cells are poised to appear in portable commercial electronics. Ballard Power and several other companies, meanwhile, have made a strong business case for using fuel cells to power forklifts.
And then there are trains, or "hydrails," as some call them.
"Hydrogen fuel cells as an application for passenger trains is very real," says Mike Hardt, vice-president of North American services for Bombardier.
In fact, Ontario may have some catching up to do if it's serious about being a world leader in hydrails. A European consortium called The Hydrogen Train concluded a study last year that looked at what it would take to demonstrate a hydrogen train in Denmark by 2010. It has approached all major train manufacturers, including Bombardier, and negotiations are ongoing.
Back in 2001, Bombardier also applied to the European Union for funding as part of a project to develop a hydrogen-powered "Green Train," but the funding request was denied. Activity is also going on in Japan and parts of the United States, such as North Carolina.
Momentum appears to be building, as an international hydrail conference started in 2005 will regroup next June for a fourth gathering in Spain.
"A hydrogen train makes a lot of sense because, unlike a car, fuel volume isn't a problem," says Greg Naterer, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which is studying the benefits and barriers to establishing a hydrogen rail corridor in southern Ontario.
Hydrogen and cars aren't an ideal marriage because passenger vehicles have limited space for hydrogen storage. To help save space, hydrogen gas can be pressurized in special tanks at up to 10,000 pounds per square inch, but this adds unwanted weight to a vehicle and, because hydrogen has a much lower energy density than gasoline, still provides only 300 kilometres or so of travel on a single fill.
Liquefying hydrogen through a cryogenic process is another option for saving space and extending travel distance, but weight remains a problem and the energy required to liquefy the gas adds to the cost of the fuel.
Trains, however, don't suffer from the same space and weight restrictions. It's also easier to establish fuelling infrastructure, because a train needs only a handful of filling stations along a predictable corridor. Filling stations for vehicles, on the other hand, are far more numerous and scattered.
David Scott, a former engineering professor at the University of Victoria who recently penned Smelling Land: The Hydrogen Defense Against Climate Catastrophe, says Toronto is an ideal place to demonstrate and deploy hydrogen trains.
"There is no other city in the world that's as well positioned," Scott says. "You'd be cleaning up Toronto, because the current trains run on diesel, and you'd be showing the world how to clean up their transportation."
Toronto is home to Hydrogenics, one of the world's leading fuel-cell developers and an active promoter of turning the GTA into a "hydrogen village." Bombardier also manufactures trains in Ontario, including the GO commuter trains that run past Pickering generating station and close to Darlington station, both of which could become valuable sources of clean hydrogen production.
Scott says he envisions a day when the side of every GO train reads: "GO Hydrogen!" or "H2 GO!" But it won't happen quickly, and that could be the biggest showstopper.
As more train systems are electrified, as battery technologies and hybrid designs mature, and as biofuels become more prevalent, the question is whether Ontario, even if it became a leader in hydrogen trains, could convince the rest of the world that it makes sense to follow.
And if hydrogen trains aren't the future of rail transportation, you can bet hydrogen-powered cars will never evolve beyond million-dollar prototypes.
"Now what you do, is build a big f***ing thing. I don't care what it is! As long as it's big and it's a f***ing thing! And then the economy will explode, because people would say "I want to see the Big F***ing Thing!". Then there'll be a Big F***ing Thing restaurant, a Big F***ing Thing hotel and casino, a Big F***ing Thing SPA!" - Lewis Black on stimulating the economy.
This project, if successful, will serve as a world landmark. It will prove that hydrogen technology can be used on a large scale, and will make Ontario a leader in clean transportation. If it fails, it will find a way to remain around forever, the province mandating that we maintain it in hopes that someone will buy the technology in hopes of improving it.
The stakes are high, and failure could result in a large, expensive pet. From what I hear, veterinarians who specialize in white elephants don't come cheap.
But in all the hype, we cannot forget one key question:
Does this improve the transit network?
Not really - Hydrogen powered locomotives only seek to improve the environmental friendliness and reliability of the current network.
So is the current locomotive technology broken?
GO's F59PH locomotives are aging, and while diesel is a fossil fuel, trains are a much more efficient use of fuel than cars or trucks. Electric locomotives have been promised, and these are more powerful than any conventional diesel technology. Going back to 1934 reveals Pennsyvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotives producing over 4000 horsepower (out-powering GO's new 600-series fleet), while AEM-7's run by several transit agencies in the northeastern US are putting out 7000 horsepower.
So why is the government moving to develop hydrogen powered locomotive technology?
Perhaps they are chasing a dream, or perhaps they are trying to stimulate the economy with "a big f***ing thing." Either way, we cannot forget what the GTA truly needs - a reliable, efficient transit network that gives every resident the opportunity to leave their cars at home and take transit to and from their destination, no matter what the technology.