A hydrogen-powered “smart tram” that requires no rails has begun on-road testing in the Malaysian city of Kuching, with plans for 38 of the “autonomous rapid transit” (ART) vehicles to be running on three lines across the city from 2025.

Stay ahead on hydrogen with our free newsletter
Keep up with the latest developments in the international hydrogen industry with the free Accelerate Hydrogen newsletter. Sign up now for an unbiased, clear-sighted view of the fast-growing hydrogen sector.

The ART, built by a subsidiary of China’s state railway firm CRRC, follows double dashed lines painted on the road using the same Lidar technology as autonomous Tesla cars, thus removing the need to embed rail tracks in existing tarmac, although a driver is still required for safety reasons.

The tram — often described as a cross between a bus and a train — will undergo three months of testing on the streets of Kuching, the largest Malaysian city on the island of Sarawak, with plans for the vehicles to start carrying passengers from late 2025, with 38 units covering three lines of the city’s new urban transport network.

Battery-electric versions of CRRC’s ART are currently used for public transport in China, but this is the first model to be powered by hydrogen.

The fuel-cell units can travel 245km on a single ten-minute charge, reaching speeds of up to 70km/h and carrying up to 307 passengers at the same time.

“The smart tram is the first to adopt a hydrogen energy power system, which has the advantages of longer driving range and shorter refuelling time [than the battery model], as well as energy saving and environmental protection,” said CRRC.

Sarawak premier Abang Johari, who took a ride on the tram’s first test run, told reporters: “This investment by the state government in public transport transformation will benefit the people.

“We are not just talking about mitigating climate change, the Sarawak government walks the talk.”

Sarawak is actively promoting hydrogen as a future clean-energy vector, and Johari even drives an H2-powered Toyota Mirai.

It is not clear where the hydrogen to run the trams will come from, although in January this year, the chairman of the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation, Amar Abdul Aziz Hussein, stated that the service would eventually require five tonnes of H2 per day.

The 38 trams will be delivered from China in batches over the coming two years, while roads are refigured to separate the trams from regular vehicles — partly for safety reasons and partly due to the city’s regular traffic jams, which would grind the trams to a halt.