Hydrogen trains will no longer be considered as a possible replacement for diesel locomotives in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, after a study it commissioned found that installation of overhead electricity lines or battery hybrid trains were far more economic over a 30-year period.

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“The state has had a total of 16 non-electrified route sections examined for the use local emission-free rail vehicles. In most cases, battery hybrid trains turned out to the best solution,” the state in southwest Germany said in a press release.

Battery hybrid trains are powered by a battery that is recharged on sections of track with overhead power lines.

Consequently, hydrogen fuel-cell trains “will no longer be considered in the near future for various operational and economic reasons”, the state said.

“In a direct comparison, this technology was not able to assert itself on any of the examined routes in Baden-Württemberg — due to the infrastructure and operational characteristics.”

In a 25-page press-conference presentation on the report’s findings, the state’s transport minister, Winfried Hermann, set out the positives and negatives for each of the three zero-carbon options considered: hydrogen trains, battery hybrids and conventional electric trains powered by overhead lines.

The positives for hydrogen were: minor impacts upon introduction and during operation, and no changes required to the rail infrastructure. But the negatives were: costly filling stations; low efficiency, high energy consumption and high cost; the possible need to increase the number of trains because the range would not be sufficient for a whole day of travel; limited availability of green hydrogen; and the need to continually resupply the hydrogen filling stations.

The presentation showed the total cost of ownership (TCO) over a 30-year period on two of the “sub-networks”.

On the Westfrankenbahn line, the TCO of a hydrogen-powered operation would be €849m ($833m), compared to €506m for a battery hybrid and €588m for conventional electric trains.

And on the Nagoldtalbahn, the cost differences were even higher, with hydrogen coming in at €476m, compared to €262m for battery hybrid — 81% less.

The report’s authors — Karlsruhe-based transport analyst TTK, Austrian consultant Komobile and “other partners” — recommended that the three of the six sub-networks replace diesel locomotives with battery hydrids; and that the other three should use conventional electric trains, although in each case, the cost difference between battery hybrid and overhead power lines was said to be “small” or “very small”.

The state owns the local rail company, Landesanstalt Schienenfahrzeuge Baden-Württemberg (SFBW), which buys trains and then leases them to operators. The idea behind this is that states can take out cheaper loans than private companies, thus reducing costs.

SFBW actually placed an order for 27 Mireo Plus B battery hybrid trains from Siemens in 2020, which will be delivered between June and December next year.

“Thanks to the battery hybrid drive of the Mireo Plus B, trains in the Ortenau regions will run emission-free from December 2023,” said Hermann last month.

A similar study last year in the state of Saxony to investigate carbon-neutral replacements of diesel locomotives in the Leipzig area found that battery trains were “optimal” compared to hydrogen ones.

This does not mean that hydrogen trains have no future in Germany or anywhere else.

In fact, the Cuxhaven to Buxtehude line in northwest Germany will become the world’s first 100% hydrogen railway when all its 15 diesel passenger trains are replaced by H2-powered models made by Alstom by the end of this year.

A hydrogen refuelling station has already been installed halfway along the 79km route — initially supplied by H2 produced locally as a by-product of chlor-alkali electrolysis at the nearby Dow chemical plant. But there are question marks over how green the hydrogen will be — as the electrolysis is powered by grid electricity, rather than renewables.

But there are plans to switch the supply to green hydrogen in the coming years.