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Business Gets Down to Hydrail

by guest blogger, Stan Thompson

When Dr. Holger Busche conceived wind turbine powered commuter trains for Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, back in 1998, he probably had a business model in mind, though he is a committed environmentalist. But by the time I presented the to the US DOT in 2003, the environmental angle had become paramount.

The metro-Charlotte NC area where I live was facing the freezing of about $6 billion in Federal funding due to local air quality non-attainment. A sanction that big focuses the mind wonderfully and a Mooresville—Charlotte train (almost exactly like the Alstom Coradia iLint now running between Buxtehude and Cuxhaven Germany) was our Town’s contribution to staving it off.

The US EPA was very supportive.

Without the environmental angle, it’s unlikely that the handful of hydrail pioneers who began meeting every year in 2005 would have into the Mooresville Hydrail Initiative.

But, at Mooresville’s and Appalachian State University’s 2013 Toronto International Hydrail Conference, Hydrogenics of Mississauga, Ontario, and Alstom Transport of Paris shook hands. Soon the iLint hydrail version of Alstom’s Coradia train began its long run from a CAD-CAM image to the tracks of Lower Saxony.

Also at Toronto in 2013 was Dr. CHEN Weirong of China’s Southwest Jiaotong University. Not long after Toronto, his hydrail demonstration locomotive, “Blue Sky,” morphed into the trams now built in Qingdao and Tangshan.  China Railway Rolling-stock Corporation’s Tangshan tram was the first to use super-capacitors in lieu of batteries for regenerative braking and fuel cell load-leveling.

From Toronto on, hydrail meant business.

Today, Alstom’s and Siemens’ rail manufacturing arms have merged and Swiss Stadler is building hydrail trains for Austria. East Japan Railways isn’t saying much but, along with Japan’s Railway Transportation Research Institute, they were the first to demonstrate a hydrail vehicle in about 2000. Given Japan’s full throttle commitment to the hydrogen economy, it would be surprising if doesn’t appear there before the Tokyo Olympics.

In the USA, the on the Charlotte-to-Raleigh Piedmont trains to hydrail. Ontario’s but is not yet rolling. In Mexico’s Yucatan region, a is in the works.

With all this North American action, it’s not surprising that Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business is offering a motive power (traction) course for railway managers who need to catch up with the paradigm shift. It’s in Long Beach, California from January 30 through February 1 next year and entitled . In addition to hydrail, batteries and other non-traditional traction technologies will be discussed.

The Broad College’s Dr. Andreas Hoffrichter will cover hydrail at the Long Beach course. He was the first scholar to receive a doctorate in hydrail, although India’s Dr. Tarun Huria’s Ph.D. from the University of Pisa also emphasized the imminent emergence of fuel cell rail.

Recently the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education partnered with the UK’s Porterbrook railway equipment leasing firm to build the —Britain’s first home-grown hydrail product. Franco-German Alstom is also helping to power the UK’s deautobonization effort with .

In hydrail’s story, business has been the answer but the world’s impetus toward climate change avoidance has been the over-arching question.

The American market potential for hydrail is enormous. Of the 330,000 miles of US track, less than one percent is electrified—or ever will be, externally, at $6 million to $12 million per mile to build and about $150,000 per mile per year to maintain.

While hydrail rolling-stock will be pricey until scale economies cut-in, the fixed-asset savings dwarf the rolling-stock cost increment.  A two million dollar hydrogen filling station, serving a whole commuter line, costs about the same as electrifying one thousand feet of track.

Railroads and their suppliers form a super-conservative business culture because of the decades-long amortization life of rail infrastructure. But at least four of the biggest manufacturers now have hydrail trains in production—or about to be. When skill sets are about to become obsolescent, corporate culture becomes an unaffordable luxury.

The UK understands this: collocated .

The Long Beach business course may be the first in the US to introduce hydrail to business. But, in railway technology, paradigm shifts—like steam to diesel—occur very seldom.

A first look can be especially important.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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