The strategy outlines the potential of hydrogen-electric traction powered trains as a viable alternative to diesel traction - in particular, for heavy-haul, long-distance freight, as well as some passenger services such as Ontario’s Go Transit regional network.

The report highlights the benefits of hydrogen power as a green power alternative for lines where full electrification is not economical or too disruptive.

“Greenhouse gas emissions from diesel trains are a significant contributor to global warming, and diesel transit trains produce local air contaminant emissions that contribute to poor air quality in urban areas,” the report says. “Authorities are under growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions from rail services, but other electrification options are costly, and require massive infrastructure upgrades.

“Hydrogen trains require no electrification infrastructure and can run on existing, unmodified tracks. Hydrogen enables a gradual transition, versus infrastructure rebuilds that disrupt service and require an upfront investment to electrify all trains concurrently.”

The strategy highlights Alstom’s rollout of Coradia iLint hydrogen trains on German regional networks, for which Ontario-based manufacturer Hydrogenics Corporation supplied the fuel cells. Hydrogenics was purchased in September 2019 by American diesel engine manufacturer Cummins.

In addition to Alstom and Cummins, Siemens has announced plans to deliver not just trains, but also complete turnkey hydrogen fuel systems to railways.

The strategy also highlights a project by Greater Toronto’s Metrolinx transport authority to modernise the GoTransit regional rail network system, which has confirmed that it will consider hydrogen as a possible alternative to electrification.

The Metrolinx Hydrail study, published in 2018, investigated the feasibility of using hydrogen trains as an alternative to electrification, and concluded that upgrading the Metrolinx network to hydrogen is both technically and economically feasible to build and operate, and that the costs involved are equivalent to that of a conventional overhead electrification system.

The hydrogen strategy describes the study as “the most comprehensive look at hydrogen rail in Canada to date.”

The strategy also suggests that hydrogen may initially be adopted by the rail freight industry to power depot shunting locomotives, with the potential to expand the use of the technology through retrofitting.

“Early studies assessing freight applicability of hydrogen concluded that hydrogen for freight shunting is technically and economically feasible,” the study says. “Retrofitting locomotives and replacing diesel engines with zero-emission fuel cell engines is a viable and cost-effective alternative to purpose-built hydrogen trains, which is an important opportunity, given the long 50-year-plus life cycle of locomotives.”