Hydrogen-Powered Passenger Trains Are Now Running in Germany

They’re expected to keep some 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year

Coradia iLint on tracks
The Coradia iLint Courtesy of Alstrom

In a bid to combat human-caused climate change, one state in Germany is rolling out a fleet of passenger trains powered entirely by hydrogen.

Five of these “zero-emissions” trains began running late last month in Lower Saxony, a state in the northern part of the country. And over the next year, the regional rail line intends to replace all its diesel-powered trains with this new alternative, reports the Points Guy’s Harriet Baskas.

Once all 14 of the new trains are in service, the line will become the first route to run exclusively on hydrogen, according to a statement from Alstom, the France-based company that developed the trains.

The high-tech trains, called Coradia iLint, combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce power. The byproducts are only steam and water, and any heat created gets recycled and used to power the trains’ air conditioning systems.

Inside of Coradia iLint
The inside of one of the trains Courtesy of Alstom / Christoph Busse

Diesel trains, on the other hand, produce high amounts of nitrogen dioxide pollution—even more so than cars traveling on busy streets, according to a study published last year. Developers say the new hydrogen trains are quiet, and they make the air cleaner for passengers to breathe.

“It’s less noisy,” says Bruno Marguet, an executive with Alstom, to Fast Company’s Adele Peters. “You don’t smell the diesel smoke when you’re in the station… there aren’t diesel emissions from [nitrogen oxides], which are harmful for health.”

Swapping out the diesel-powered trains along this Lower Saxony regional route should also keep more than 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year, reports Mark Hallam for Deutsche Welle (DW), a state-run broadcaster in Germany.

The trains can travel 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) on a single tank of hydrogen. And when they need to refuel, they’ll do so at a hydrogen filling station that crews built along the tracks. They can run at speeds of up to 86 miles per hour, but they typically stay between 50 and 75 miles per hour on this route.

Coradia iLint
A Coradia iLint train Courtesy of Alstom / Sabrina Adeline Nagel

European countries have electrified many train lines to eliminate the vehicles’ need for diesel. But that conversion process can be too expensive in some areas, particularly on lines that aren’t used as often, making the hydrogen trains a good alternative, per DW.

Lower Saxony began testing the hydrogen-powered trains on the regional rail line in 2018. Next, the state plans to eventually phase out all 126 of its trains that run on diesel.

"We will not buy any more diesel trains in order to do even more to combat climate change,” says Carmen Schwable, a spokeswoman for LNVG, the local public transit authority, to DW.

German government agencies spent around $92 million on the project, which is one of several installations that Alstom has planned in Europe. Soon, the new trains will expand to other parts of the country and beyond: Frankfurt, Germany, has ordered 27 trains for its metropolitan area, France intends to deploy 12 of them and the northern Lombardy region of Italy plans to add six.

Diesel-powered trains account for roughly 20 percent of all train journeys in Germany, and eventually, the country wants to replace 2,500 to 3,000 of its trains with hydrogen-powered alternatives.

Hydrogen isn’t a fix-all, however. Though it’s the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen must be separated from other elements to be used to produce energy. Extraction typically involves non-renewable resources—namely, natural gas and fossil fuel-powered electricity—and some of the hydrogen used to power Germany’s new trains is produced with fossil fuels.

But within the next few years, the train operator aims to use hydrogen produced with local wind energy, per Fast Company—and elsewhere, other green energy sources could eventually help make hydrogen production more sustainable, too.