GREATER Toronto transport authority Metrolinx is pushing ahead with its 10-year $C 13.5bn ($US 10.3bn) Regional Express Rail (RER) project to transform five of the seven Go Transit commuter rail lines into an all-day service where trains run at 15-minute intervals. Currently, the highest off-peak frequency is on the majority of the Lakeshore East and West lines where trains operate every 30 minutes, while three other lines have hourly services on the inner-suburban sections. The rest of the network is only served by peak-hour trains.

However, the plan to electrify the five lines with conventional overhead electrification could be ditched in favour of hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) trains following the findings of Metrolinx’s Hydrail feasibility study which was launched in June 2017 by Ontario’s transportation minister, Mr Steve del Duca.

The study, conducted by CH2M Hill Canada, Ernst & Young, and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, considered both the train service pattern and rail vehicle fleet mix to analyse the technical and financial requirements for operation of the Hydrail system. The study concludes that while implementing Hydrail across the Go network would be complex, and a world-first for a large-scale commuter rail system, there is a “good level of confidence” that it can be achieved.

The report says one of the key advantages of Hydrail compared with electrification is the ability to use electricity to produce hydrogen when hourly prices are at their lowest, for example at night. By maintaining a continuous surplus of hydrogen, operating costs can be minimised.

The report cites several other advantages that could be derived from HFC operation:

  • the ability to introduce HFC trains in a phased way rather than having to wait for electrification of a line to be completed
  • the ability to operate HFC trains over the entire network, thereby eliminating diesel traction, and
  • the avoidance of the high capital cost of overhead electrification

The report also recognises some disadvantages with HFC traction compared with electric traction:

  • the need to refuel trains, which is expected to take about 30 minutes with the multiple tanks being refilled simultaneously using a manifold system
  • higher equipment capital costs due to the need to integrate the HFC system into the powered vehicles, and
  • higher renewal costs as electrification equipment is expected to last longer.

To reduce costs, the report recommends locating the hydrogen production facilities near the refuelling points to avoid having to transport the hydrogen between the two.

While modern electric trains have regenerative braking, the study says that with Hydrail there will be an opportunity to design the on-board power management system to maximise the amount of energy recovered during braking. Hydrail’s subsystems - multiple small hydrogen tanks, fuel cells and batteries - would be modular so that failure of one component should not have a significant impact on subsystem operation. In addition, all the Hydrail components are based on technology that is commercially available. “This means that we are confident we will achieve a high level of reliability,” say the report’s authors.

However, the study warns that the challenge will be in the integration of these components into an HFC system and then into a rail vehicle, which could delay their introduction and jeopardise Metrolinx’s objective of launching RER services in 2025. The report says this challenge should not be underestimated, as the space available is limited and many design constraints will need to be overcome, particularly regarding weight distribution. Nevertheless, the report recognises that Alstom has received its first order for its Coradia iLint HFC train, CRRC has built an HFC LRV for Foshan using fuel cells supplied by Ballard, Canada, while Siemens is developing an HFC train with Ballard.

Go Transit2018The study says the ability to integrate the HFC equipment into a locomotive has been validated by three suppliers, while other manufacturers have expressed interest in the HFC locomotive project, which could lead to the production of a prototype. In addition, the simulation modelling undertaken demonstrates that HFC-powered locomotives and EMUs can be designed to deliver the planned RER services, even though such vehicles of the type needed for the RER network do not yet exist.

However, it is anticipated that the cost of procuring the HFC fleet will be higher than for conventional electric trains due to the development work required, and the higher cost of the hybrid HFC equipment which needs to be integrated into the rail vehicles.

The report identifies another important challenge: the system would require around 1% of the electricity generated daily in the province of Ontario and would therefore be vulnerable to fluctuations in energy prices. The economic viability of Hydrail would be heavily dependent on how electricity price variability risk is apportioned with the private sector.

Other potential challenges include unexpected operational reliability issues when the HFC trains enter service, concerns from the public and passengers about the safety of HFC-powered trains which will need to be allayed through a comprehensive public communication strategy, and delays in receiving regulatory approval to operate the HFC trains.


The study stresses the need to develop Hydrail as a complete end-to-end system, with the trains at one extremity and the power grid at the other. The study recommends implementing and operating a small-scale prototype of the complete system so that lessons learned can be fed into the design of the final system.

Conventional electrification also carries significant project risks, but it is suggested that Hydrail could offer broader benefits to the province in terms of economic development in the technology sector. It could also act as a catalyst for the adoption of hydrogen in other areas of society.

One option in the current RER proposals envisages using electric locomotives operating in push-pull mode with 12 double-deck coaches. The Hydrail study recommends using two smaller HFC locomotives because the volume of hydrogen on a single locomotive would be insufficient to meet range requirements between refuelling cycles.

This could give Metrolinx the option of splitting the train into two consists of one locomotive and six coaches, enabling the operation of shorter trains at off-peak times and thereby reducing operating costs. It would also enable Metrolinx to continue to operate its existing fleet of double-deck coaches.

An assessment of the Net Present Value (NPV) cost of implementing and operating the Hydrail system suggests a benefit: cost ratio (BCR) of 3.01 can be achieved with a low-cost scenario and 2.65 for a high-cost scenario. The BCR for the existing RER business case is 3.07 based on conventional electrification. However, the implementation and operating costs for electrification are currently being reviewed which will enable the electrification BCR to be updated. Nevertheless, the overall lifecycle of the Hydrail system is deemed to be similar to that of standard overhead electrification.

Metrolinx plans to tender the RER project using a Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) model. Metrolinx says this would allow a single entity to manage all interrelated decisions and oversee each phase of the project from design to maintenance, optimising implementation and system performance.

The study recommends that Metrolinx should continue developing concepts for both a HFC locomotive and multiple unit, commission the construction of a prototype HFC locomotive for revenue operation, begin developing designs for hydrogen refuelling facilities and production systems, and work with regulators to clarify safety rules. It also suggests the development of a framework for bid proposals to be used as part of the DBFOM process, and cooperation with the province to develop a cross-government business case for hydrogen.