The German state of Bavaria’s push for hydrogen-powered trains as a way to decarbonise its railways will be extremely expensive and delay the more economic option of direct electrification, argues the Bavarian wing of Pro Bahn, a non-profit train passenger association.

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“The most important meaning of hydrogen for mobility in Bavaria is the opportunity for photo ops for politicians, distraction from the essentials and the waste of tax money,” said Lukas Iffländer, chairman of Pro Bahn’s Bavarian regional association, commenting on a recent appearance of the state economics minister Hubert Aiwanger — a strong proponent of H2 in transport — at the IAA motor show in Munich earlier this month.

Bavaria’s government contracted its first hydrogen-powered train, a Mireo Plus prototype from Siemens, in March 2022 for a 30-month pilot, with a test run scheduled for this week. However, passenger operations will not begin until 2024.

“Only with a lot of tax money can ‘pilot projects’ be carried out, which no longer have any meaning other than enabling expensive photo ops,” Iffländer added.

Pro Bahn pointed out that in technology-neutral tenders for public transport by other German states, electric drivetrains using a combination of overhead lines and batteries have generally won out over hydrogen fuel cells.

This echoes recent comments by German train manufacturer Stadler, which noted that not only are battery-electric models appropriate for the range of most of the 500 routes still served by diesel stock, but these have lower operation and maintenance costs than fuel-cell trains.

And last month, Lower Saxony — which had introduced the first hydrogen-only railway line in 2022 — announced it would replace its remaining diesel trains with battery-electric options, as these are cheaper to operate.

“For the railways in Bavaria, we carried out a concrete analysis of all Bavarian local transport lines, with the result: Complete electrification is possible at short notice and with little effort,” Iffländer said.

Pro Bahn’s analysis recommends deploying battery-electric trains as an immediate measure while overhead lines are installed along railways, with the easiest-to-electrify routes and junctions prioritised.

However, a report commissioned by the government-owned railway company Bayerische Eisenbahngesellschaft, published in April, estimates that the optimal charging set-up for battery-electric trains in the diesel-run 72km Bavarian Forest network would still require a 10km “island” of overhead lines, as well as stationary chargepoints.

This is expected to cost around €31.8m to build, while the current speed of planning approvals for such infrastructure could delay operations that are scheduled to start in 2030 until 2034.

However, the hydrogen-powered train pilot programme is expected to cost “several million euros”, according to the state's transport minister Christian Bernreiter, raising questions as to whether funding for this trial could be better spent on infrastructure to directly electrify Bavarian railways.

A study commissioned last year by the German state of Baden-Württemberg found that the total cost of ownership of a hydrogen-powered regional rail line over a 30-year period would be €476m for one regional line, compared to €262m for a battery hybrid set-up — an 81% saving.

While that study is not directly comparable to the railway in Bavaria, it did lead to the state ruling out any future consideration of hydrogen trains.

Updated following clarification from Bavarian State Ministry of Housing, Construction and Transport that test-run of a hydrogen-powered train is still scheduled for this week, although passenger operations side of the pilot will not take place until 2024.