Rail transport: What happened to a “holistic” concept and common sense?

About this column:
In a weekly column written alternately by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Katleen Gabriels, PG Kroeger, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. Please read previous episodes here.

A few weeks ago, I attended a press conference held by the Association of German Engineers (VDI) that extolled the benefits of hydrogen-based rail transport. The background is clear: Germany still has numerous rail lines that are not electric. Electrifying them with overhead lines would make little sense from a financial point of view and would be difficult to implement thanks to Germany’s “speedy” bureaucracy and objections from the population. But the current use of diesel locomotives should be ended soon for environmental reasons.

Electricity or hydrogen?

Much like heavy-duty transport, the two most promising alternatives, namely fuel cell or battery operation, were discussed. In the end, the specialists of the VDI Railway Technology Advisory Board and Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Technical Committee came to the conclusion that hydrogen-powered trains are the best solution.

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Objections and energy policy

The objections of the press representatives present were hardly worth mentioning until I asked the question about the supply of “green hydrogen.” My impression: the VDI representatives present actually found the question somewhat out of place. Because, they argued, it was primarily a matter of evaluating which system was the most cost-effective.

Hydrogen filling stations, etc.

My follow-up question concerned infrastructure. Hydrogen refueling stations, I objected, would cost many times as much as an electric solution, which is already available given the current state of electrification of the railroads.

And finally, I pointed out the high electricity costs for producing “green hydrogen,” which would be many times the cost of simply charging a battery. Plus, “green energy” is scarce and should be used as efficiently as possible.

Unfair objections

Of course, such objections are unfair. What emerged during the discussion, however, was the technical ignorance of those responsible, which unfortunately permeates many areas of society.

Holistic concepts

One increasingly gets the impression—especially in Germany—that many things are no longer thought through. Hydrogen is a great idea if you know where to get it as cheaply as possible and without CO2 emissions. In times of a worldwide energy crisis, however, interdisciplinary financial and climate considerations would be of fundamental importance here.

Those involved in the press conference referred to North African supplies (not yet available), hydrogen pipelines (still to be built, not even in the planning stage), transports from windy areas like Patagonia (nothing decided or agreed upon yet) and other possibilities (we’ll get to that in a moment). Thus, one got the impression that hydrogen production is just a minor detail.

The German government works sloppily, too

Just over a week ago, the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection (emphasis by the author) under Robert Habeck announced the receipt of the first hydrogen shipment from the United Arab Emirates. What was not emphasized was the fact that it was so-called “blue hydrogen.” As is well known, this is obtained from the steam reduction of natural gas. Incidentally, this is precisely the natural gas that is currently in short supply and has become expensive in the EU. On top of that, this production generates CO2 emissions—not in the EU, of course, but in a country that already has the world’s second-highest per capita emissions of precisely this greenhouse gas. That didn’t seem to bother the green minister in the least.

Sustainability

The so-called traffic light coalition in Germany actually started out claiming it would tackle the climate issue head-on. But in recent weeks and months, it has become clear that the biggest advocates of a sustainable climate policy are instead doing it one disservice after another.

One final fun fact

The Deutsche Bahn now seems to have determined that hydrogen cannot be the solution. More and more battery-electric trains are being awarded contracts for non-electrified sections of track. Most recently, its regional train division, DBRegio, declared in September 2022 that it intended to run electric trains in the state of Saarland beginning in 2025.

So common sense has not been completely lost.