Chinese state-owned train manufacturer CRRC has converted a diesel-engine locomotive to run purely on hydrogen-powered fuel cells, in what is believed to be a world first.

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The company says its Ningdong locomotive can hold 270kg of hydrogen, enabling it to operate continuously up to 190 hours, requiring about two hours to be fully refuelled.

CRRC is part of a technology cooperation alliance with the Ningxia-Ningdong Railway in northern China that aims to convert its existing diesel locomotives to run on hydrogen, so this should be the first of many.

The converted locomotive contains the largest fuel cell of any train in the world, says CRRC, with a capacity of 800kW — four times the size of the fuel cells on the Alstom Coradia iLint.

Multiple research programmes have been announced around the world to convert diesel locomotives to run on hydrogen — including an Alstom/Engie project announced in January — but none are believed to have yet completed a conversion.

Converting diesel locomotives to H2 is believed to be a cheaper option than buying brand new hydrogen trains, and would also avoid the cost of electrifying tracks — the other main alternative to decarbonising rail, although battery-operated trains are also available.

Indeed, CRRC’s Ningdong locomotive also contains a battery that can absorb energy from the braking system, just like fuel-cell electric vehicles do.

China alone has about 7,800 diesel locomotives, more than 90% of which could be converted to hydrogen, according to CRRC.

The company previously developed the country’s first hydrogen fuel-cell train in 2021.