Fuel cell trains on the move

The Coradia iLint in Austria,
© Alstom

The evocatively named Heidekrautbahn, or heather railroad, has a long history: Since 1905 it’s enabled city dwellers to escape from the German capital into the surrounding Schorfheide countryside to the north. However, efforts to resume the passenger service between Basdorf and Berlin-Gesundbrunnen, which was discontinued in 1983, have been drawn out over many years. On Dec. 14, 2020, a grant was due to be awarded that would make this rail link a vital part of a large-scale hydrogen project. According to the proposals, the trains would be powered by fuel cells using renewable energy supplied from regional sources and an electrolyzer would be acquired along with additional hydrogen vehicles. In spite of these preparations, the pandemic has, nevertheless, put the launch on hold.

Plans started taking shape in October 2017 when the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, in collaboration with rail company DB Netze, initiated the i2030 infrastructure project. This then led to the signing of a planning agreement between the transport association Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg and the rail company Niederbarnimer Eisenbahn-Aktiengesellschaft in January 2019. The arrangement set out proposals to reinstate the main line of the Heidekrautbahn for rail passenger usage. The kick-off event was due to take place at the end of 2020 with the German transport minister in attendance who was contributing a total of EUR 35 million to the project. Lockdown, however, necessitated a postponement.

The original intention was for the Heidekrautbahn’s hydrogen operation to serve as a pilot scheme for hydrogen-powered trains. Yet, “lighthouse project” would no longer be a fitting description of the initiative due to the numerous delays. Consequently, the same consortium began a new initiative in early 2020 with new funding requests to the German transportation ministry, this time not as a flagship program but in the form of several standalone projects. Coordination of the project is being handled by Barnimer Energiegesellschaft, BEG.

One initial scheme proposes to extend the power-to-gas facility of project partner Enertrag in Prenzlau in order to ensure that the plant can provide sufficient gas for around five railcars, with the exact number still to be decided. The plan foresees the hybrid power plant supplying 450 kilograms of hydrogen a day to a hydrogen refueling station, which would be located in Basdorf, via multi-trailer trucks. In addition, six buses and two refuse trucks are envisaged, along with an electrolyzer near Wensickendorf.

The district of Barnim has been pursuing a zero-emissions strategy since 2008, for instance through the use of renewable energy and carbon-neutral transportation at both a municipal and regional level. It was therefore only appropriate that, as part of the retendering of this section of railroad, certain environmental conditions would be imposed. Accordingly, the tender to operate the line from 2024 to 2038, allocated through a direct bidding process, was made contingent on research and development plans for the use of hydrogen railcars. As part of a “German tour” back in February 2019, the Coradia iLint has already traveled along part of the Heidekrautbahn route (RB 27, see H2-international, January 2018 and July 2019) to Berlin-Gesundbrunnen.

H2Rail.Prignitz – possible field trial

Other sections of track in Brandenburg could also see the running of hydrogen trains in a few years: While seven rail links anticipate the use of battery electric railcars, as tendered out in May 2020 for Northeast Berlin, diesel or fuel cell trains could enter service on three stretches from 2024. Regine Günther, Berlin’s transport senator, explained:We are focusing on the most up-to-date methods for powering the Berlin metropolitan region – moving away from diesel and toward clean electric power with trains that can store electricity and cover sections of line that do not have overhead wires. We also promise that there will be a binding requirement in the follow-up contract for the continued operation of the vehicles and the workshop. Thus we are committed to an ecologically sustainable local public transport network in the longer term.”

… Read more in the latest H2-International e-Journal, Feb. 2021

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