The Zillertal Railway in the Austrian state of Tyrol has scrapped plans to replace its diesel trains with hydrogen-powered alternatives, after an independent study recommended the line could be decarbonised at more quickly and at a much lower cost with batteries — either alone, or in a hybrid strategy with new overhead lines.

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The railway had first announced plans in 2018 to operate hydrogen-powered trains instead of diesel by 2025.

However, the planned first five units from manufacturer Stadler — which would have cost €75m and were meant to be in operation in 2022 — were never ordered, over uncertainty from both state and federal governments regarding how the project would be financed.

At the time, local newspaper Mein Bezirk reported that the chairman of the Zillertal Railway supervisory board Franz Hörl was continuing to push for the hydrogen trains despite increasing criticism over cost.

“From the Tyrolean Landhaus and from the Greens, we hear again and again that electrification is cheaper or better, but our technical director Dr Schreiner has refuted this several times,” he reportedly said.

“We can’t turn around on the home stretch and put a project that has progressed so far in the drawer.”

However, Helmut Schreiner — chief technology officer for the Zillertal Railway when the hydrogen trains project was proposed — was last year ousted after local reports revealed that he had not only fraudulently posed as having a doctorate since 2019 despite only submitting his thesis in 2023, and that his eventual thesis submission was almost entirely plagiarised.

This prompted calls from the local arms of the Green Party and far-right Freedom Party of Austria to reconsider the plan for hydrogen trains — the latter calling for a cessation of subsidies, while the former called for an outright cancellation.

As such, the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) was commissioned to independently assess six different drivetrains for a decarbonised route, although the state of Tyrol has ruled out the installation of overhead lines along the full Zillertal railway due to how land ownership is structured and high investment costs.

While a full report is yet to be published, it revealed its preliminary results to the state government: battery-powered trains on the whole route, or using overhead lines on some sections and relying on batteries on others, are the most cost-effective options.

“In the opinion of TU Wien, the hydrogen concept pursued since 2018 was the right thing to do at the time, but has now been overtaken by battery technology,” according to a state government press release.

As such, this week, Tyrolean government has decided to officially start planning for charging infrastructure to electrify the Zillertal Railway, with decarbonisation set to take place between 2025 and 2030.

Stadler has previously suggested that battery-electric trains in Europe will almost always be cheaper and more efficient than hydrogen-powered options to operate on sections of railway without overhead lines.

Meanwhile, the few lines in Germany that have opted to go all-in on hydrogen have faced numerous problems, with the RB15 in Frankfurt recently offering free travel to passengers throughout April and May as compensation for heavily disrupted services.