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The potential of hydrogen technology in rail transportation – interview with Gáspár Balázs, CEO of Alstom Hungary

Gáspár Balázs will be one of the speakers of the Budapest Hydrogen Summit, to be held on 10 March 2022.

At the beginning of December, the global leader of smart and sustainable mobility and the leading employer and manufacturer of Hungarian rail transport Alstom signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with oil and gas company MOL to examine the use of hydrogen technology in rail transportation.

CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Gáspár Balázs, Managing Director and CEO of Alstom in Hungary about what outcomes are expected from the cooperation and the role of hydrogen in the mobility industry, both in Hungary and in Central and Eastern Europe.

“The strategic cooperation between our companies has significant potential not only for MOL and Alstom but also for the local economy and the environment,” begins Mr Balázs. “The Coradia iLint trains offered by Alstom are the world’s first passenger trains to use hydrogen fuel cell for traction power.

These trains are already proven in commercial operations in several countries and in our experience, the technology is becoming a viable alternative for non-electrified lines. As an example, the hydrogen trains can run up to 1,000 kilometres with a single charge which takes less than half an hour.

On top of that, he reminds us that each hydrogen train has the potential to save up to 760 tons of CO2, compared to a diesel train each year. In Hungary, the transport sector accounts for around a fifth of the country’s CO2 emissions, thus hydrogen can be a promising technology for the decarbonisation of long-distance transportation.

“This means that the carbon footprint of the trains’ operations can be reduced significantly, or even to zero, if the operator used green hydrogen as an energy source,” he points out. “MOL is already the largest energy supplier of the Hungarian rail network and produces 150,000 tons of hydrogen each year, however, neither its storage capacity nor its transportation capacity has been tested in the context of the rail industry. The MoU will enable MOL to develop and implement new railway hydrogen fuelling infrastructure with Alstom’s complimentary technological expertise.”

Another important aspect of this cooperation that Mr Balázs decides to underline is its contribution to the Hungarian economy.

rail transportation
Courtesy of Alstom.

“To increase the local added value, we aim to produce bogies for hydrogen trains in our Mátranovák factory in Nógrád country, where we currently employ 630 workers,” he explains. “The site already produces bogie frames for the entire range of Alstom’s rolling stock from subways to high-speed trains. These components are manufactured in outstanding quality and are exported to rail operators across Europe. Additionally, the maintenance of these trains can also be carried out by local teams, which is a considerable logistical, engineering and service task, considering the trains’ lifecycle of about 30 years.”

Overall, Mr Balázs believes that the MoU will allow Alstom and MOL to contribute to a sustainable, environment-friendly and state-of-the-art model of mobility in Hungary.

But, considering the colour spectrum of hydrogen (grey, blue, hydrogen, pink and so on) which one are we talking about? Mr Balázs recalls that Hungary has a National Hydrogen Strategy with an ambitious goal of producing 20,000 tons of low-carbon (blue) hydrogen and 16,000 tons of carbon-free (green) hydrogen yearly by 2030.

“Apart from these goals, the priority objectives include the decarbonisation of industrial consumption (partly with hydrogen), accelerating the transition to clean transportation methods and developing a support infrastructure,” he says. “More importantly, Hungary has outstanding capacities in its energy mix for railway application, which are reinforced by the intention to invest both in renewables and the Paks II project, which is the extension of the country’s sole nuclear power plant. The latter has the potential to reinforce the business case for hydrogen use as a power source, as the technology allows the excess night energy to be stored for daytime use. As a result, hydrogen trains in Hungary could run with night-time production prices during the day.”

Asked about the challenges for the development of hydrogen-fuelled train transportation, Mr Balázs doesn’t see a lot of obstacles, as it is a great solution to decarbonise non-electrified train lines.

rail transportation
Courtesy of Alstom.

“As a first step, the necessary infrastructure needs to be built,” he suggests. “In our view, a pilot project on the network of MÁV Hungarian Railways makes a lot of sense before a larger, nation-wide rollout program. The constructive debate around the safety of hydrogen might also be necessary.”

Indeed, public opinion is at best neutral about hydrogen as an energy source which, according to Gáspár Balázs might be the result of the reactivity potential of oxygen and hydrogen mixtures, even though using hydrogen as an energy source is a safe industrial practice.

“It is also safe to use hydrogen as an energy source for the railway industry and Alstom’s trains are designed for safety and have already obtained all necessary European interoperability and safety certificates,” he indicates.

I’d also like to underline, that our trains are reliable in operation and in our experience, both passengers and local communities greatly appreciate the benefits of noise reduction, high comfort levels, and of course, the fact that the only by-product of the train is steam and water.

As Alstom’s primary focus is producing trains, for the infrastructure, the company works with experts in the field, mainly with oil and gas companies. In Germany, it works with Linde on the project LNVG in Lower Saxony and Infraserv on the project RMV close to Frankfurt. In Italy, its partner is SNAM.

Earlier in December, the European Commission adopted a set of legislative proposals to decarbonise the EU gas market by facilitating the uptake of renewable and low carbon gases, including hydrogen, which is in many ways front-and-centre to the Commission’s efforts. As Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson said, “a key element of this transition is establishing a competitive hydrogen market with dedicated infrastructure.”

“When you introduce a new technology, subsidies are useful to facilitate market introduction and growth, which makes the funding and technological collaborations key aspects,” notes the CEO of Alstom. “It is also important to stimulate cooperation between the transportation sector, industry and the housing market to create a more welcoming environment for the wider hydrogen economy.”

In terms of regulation, CO2 reduction targets together with carbon emission taxes can help speed up the implementation of alternative fuel ecosystems. On top of commitments made by Governments, this is a clear expectation of societies, which is a strong driving force behind regulatory measures.

In general, hydrogen fuel cell-powered passenger trains have the capacity in the CEE region to decarbonise the railway industry with smart planning and a good regulatory approach. Therefore, what is the role of CEE and how can the region emerge on the map of sustainable and hydrogen transportation?

“As opposed to early adopters, CEE countries can rely on Alstom’s experience in other countries, such as the Netherlands, or Austria, where hydrogen cell fuelled trains have already carried passengers and from other projects, which are under implementation in Italy, France and the UK,” says Mr Balázs. “In Germany, hydrogen-powered trains are entering regular service in the second quarter of 2022.”

“I strongly believe that Hungary enters the hydrogen debate with good tact, and Alstom is a strong local partner not only in Hungary but also in the neighbouring CEE countries,” he concludes. “From the technological and industrial perspective, our trains are ready for serial production.”

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