HydroFLEX, the UK’s first hydrogen train, will be tested on the mainline railway following a successful proof-of-concept with the goal to carry passengers in two or three years.

The HydroFLEX pilot involves the fitment of a hydrogen powerpack to an existing Class 319 train, which would eventually allow it to run on conventional electrified routes as well as independently.

The project is a result of a partnership between Porterbrook, provider of rail leasing and asset management support, and the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE).

“Sustainability and innovation are integral to what we do here at Porterbrook, and so we are tremendously proud to have played a key role in designing and building the UK’s first hydrogen train,” Mary Grant, CEO of Porterbrook, said.

“This is a first test but we are excited about being in a position to provide HydroFLEX as a viable offering very soon. Britain’s railway has a key part to play in reducing transport emissions and we are committed to helping our customers play an important role in delivering this.”

The HydroFLEX project has recently been awarded funding from Innovate UK through its First Of A Kind competition to take the prototype forward towards mainline testing.

“This is a great success story for the UK Rail Industry, which shows our capability and commitment to helping the government meet decarbonisation targets,” Alex Burrows, Director at Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, said.

“Key to this success is the close partnership between academia and industry which has enabled us to pool the expertise needed to rapidly progress this technology from concept to full-scale working demonstrator. This partnership between the University of Birmingham and Porterbrook has been a trailblazer for academia and industry accelerating ideas into practical application on the railway. We look forward to the next phase of this project which will take this technology onto the UK railway.”

Source: Alstom

Alstom’s hydrogen train

Germany is currently the only nation to have active emission-free, hydrogen fuel cell passenger trains in service. The Coradia iLint, built by French railway manufacturer Alstom in Germany, began operating in September, 2018 and running on nearly 100km of line between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude in northern Germany.

The HydroFLEX partnership hopes its test trains go on to replace heavily-polluting diesel trains, but they are more expensive.

Dr Stuart Hillmansen, Senior Lecturer, Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education noted: “Our prototype shows how hydrogen powered technology can be incorporated within existing trains, without needing to modify the drivers’ controls. It’s an exciting advance because it shows how this technology could be adopted into the mainline system to deliver emission-free public transport. This project has been really important in bringing the rail industry up to speed with the technology, showing it can work at this scale and upskilling the rail industry. In the next few years we could see a fleet of these operational in the UK.”

HydroFLEX has relied on Chrysalis Rail for installation; Denchi Group for traction batteries; Ballard Fuel Cell Systems for the fuel cell; Luxfer for hydrogen storage tanks; DG8 design support; Derby Engineering Unit for panels and brackets; SNC Lavalin for design and hazard identifications; Aura for exterior livery design and dB Cargo Crewe for the recommissioning of the unit.

The train works by piping hydrogen stored on board in high pressure tanks to the fuel cell where it is mixed with oxygen from the air to create electricity. The electricity can be stored in a battery, and powers the train.

Since September 2018, the first two hydrogen trains from Alstom have been in regular passenger service on the Elbe-Weser network. Starting in 2021, the Landesnahverkehrsgesellschaft Niedersachsen will use 14 Coradia iLints to transport regular travellers between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude with the fuel cell trains.

The Coradia iLint is the world’s first passenger train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electric power for traction. The train is quiet and only emits water vapour and condensation.