Written by William C. Vantuono, June 15, 2017
Metrolinx, the provincial agency in Ontario, Canada, that manages most of the region’s public transportation, expects to conduct a C$5 million feasibility study on hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered GO Transit regional/commuter trains, the Toronto Star reported on June 15.
Metrolinx is close to launching a long-awaited study and public consultation process on electrifying GO Transit lines under its RER (Regional Express Rail) expansion program, which is expected to cost about C$13.5 billion. An environmental impact assessment is part of the government-mandated TPAP (Transit Project Assessment Process) that must be completed before RER construction can proceed. RER will introduce 24/7, bi-directional GO rail service on the busiest parts of the GTHA (Greater Toronto Hamilton Area) regional rail network by 2025.
Speaking exclusively with Toronto Star reporter Ben Spur, Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca confirmed that Metrolinx will undertake a fuel cell feasibility study as part of the electrification project environmental assessment. The study will help Metrolinx ascertain whether such technology could be used in lieu of electrification, infrastructure for which (catenary and poles, electricity generation, substations, etc.) is expensive to build, operate and maintain.
“This is a decision we’re making that will have to last for a generation and beyond, so we want to make sure that we’re at the leading edge of the technology,” Del Duca told The Star. “It could be traditional electrification; it could be electrification by hydrogen fuel cell. It could be a combination of both.”
Hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered passenger trains emit only steam and condensed water, and operate almost silently. At present, though there are none in revenue service, several have been tested. Leading the effort is Alstom, which in March announced it had performed a successful test run of what it called the “first low-floor passenger train worldwide powered by a hydrogen fuel cell” on a German test track.
The fuel cell drive system on Alstom’s Coradia iLINT combines hydrogen with oxygen; the chemical reaction produces electricity, which is stored in lithium-ion batteries, and steam and condensed water—the train’s only emissions. Hydrogen is stored onboard in tanks in liquid form; it’s combined with oxygen drawn from the atmosphere. (Spacecraft fuel cells, developed by NASA for the Gemini and Apollo programs in the 1960s, carry liquid oxygen on board.) Alstom’s test train successfully operated at 50 mph (80 kph). Its hydrogen was an industrial byproduct, but Alstom says it intends to produce hydrogen with wind energy. Alstom says it has letters of intent from several German operators for purchase of 60 trainsets.
Metrolinx in May announced a C$528 million single-source contract with Alstom for 61 Citadis LRVs for the Finch West, Eglinton Crosstown and other GTHA light rail projects. Bombardier is under contract to produce Flexity vehicles for the C$5.3 billion Eglinton LRT and other Metrolinx projects, but the order has been delayed and is now the focus of a dispute resolution process that could take up to one year and thus delay Eglinton’s opening. Bombardier has been experiencing similar problems with its Flexity LRVs for the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) streetcar network.
Asked by The Star if Metrolinx’s relationship with Alstom influenced the decision to look into fuel-cell-powered trains, Del Duca said the agency is “not wedded to any particular provider.”
Metrolinx, which will lead the feasibility study, also plans to partner with the University of Toronto to host a Fall 2017 symposium on “global leaders on hydrogen fuel cell technology,” according to Del Duca, who added that there is “potentially a ton of upside” to the technology, including noise mitigation. Under RER, Metrolinx plans to quadruple the number of weekly trips on the GO Transit network from about 1,500 to 6,000, and some communities have expressed concerns about noise, he said. As well, fuel-cell-powered equipment could lower costs, since electrification infrastructure wouldn’t be required.
The estimated C$5 million feasibility study has no firm timeline or committed budget at present. Del Duca said if the study determines that fuel cell technology is the best option, some TPAP elements may have to be re-worked, though the RER program could still be completed by 2025.