tests are underway in Japan as elsewhere, SNCF tests planned for 2024

Many diesel trains still run in Japan. Railway companies are trying to reduce CO2 emissions, and near Tokyo the company is currently testing its first hydrogen-powered trains.

Demonstration of a hydrogen train arriving at Loches station, 1 February 2023. It was the first on a railway line in France.  (JULIEN PROVOST / MAXPPP)

This is a solution that the SNCF is following very closely, having already ordered 12 TER trains running on hydrogen. These trains will soon be in a trial phase, their commissioning planned for the end of 2025 in four regions: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Grand Est and Occitanie.

In Japan, many railway companies are interested in this technology, some of which are not yet electrified. There is a lot of competition on rail networks with several different players depending on the region. Most of them work on these hydrogen trains.

Right now, in the suburbs of Yokohama, near Tokyo, the big company JR East is starting to operate a small local fuel cell train. The group is very careful because a third of its lines are not electrified and are therefore forced to use diesel locomotives, which generate large amounts of CO2. The new train is currently running on a normal track, but without actual passengers. The tests are conducted with engineers from JR East and those from Toyota and Hitachi, who are the main specialists in this technology.

Electricity produced completely autonomously

The hydrogen train works like a hydrogen car. It generates its own electricity, which it uses to run the engine, light the headlights or operate the doors. The locomotive is not connected to the grid and does not need catenary lines as seen on traditional electric trains. The train produces electricity in so-called fuel cells, which are placed under the carriages. These are some kind of generators where the hydrogen that is stored on board, in special tanks, is mixed with oxygen obtained outside. When these two ingredients are combined in a giant battery, they cause a chemical reaction that produces two things: electricity and water. Electricity goes to motors or possibly electric batteries and water is released in liquid or steam form. The train can therefore run without CO2 emissions. The solution is not 100% green, as hydrogen production still produces a large amount of CO2, but the solution remains cleaner than conventional diesel engines.

Other countries are studying these hydrogen trains. Trials are also currently underway in Malaysia, China, as well as Europe and America. French group Alstom has just studied a similar train in Canada, and SNCF will test its first hydrogen TER trains in the coming months. If all goes well, passengers will be able to board around the end of 2025.

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