Fail, Hydrail: Metrolinx finally ditches plans for hydrogen-powered trains

OPINION: After four years of investigation, the company has all but abandoned the idea of hydrogen-fuelled trains zipping through the GTA. Good riddance
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 16, 2021
The world’s first hydrogen-fuel-cell train on its way to Bremervoerde, Germany, in September 2018. (David Hecker/EPA)

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I come to bury hydrail, not to praise it. Nearly four years ago, the Liberal government of the day, in the person of Minister of Transportation (now leader of the Ontario Liberal Party) Steven Del Duca, announced that the province was moving forward with electrifying the trains on the GO Transit system. But there was a catch: Metrolinx was being directed to investigate whether trains powered by hydrogen fuel cells — “hydrail,” in a somewhat goofy but memorable enough portmanteau — were worth pursuing instead of the conventional overhead caternary wires.

Electrification is undeniably good and necessary for trains in the GTA: aside from being more polluting, GO’s conventional diesel trains are more ponderous than modern electric trains. They take longer to start and stop, making it more difficult to deliver the fast, frequent service that’s at the heart of Metrolinx’s plans going forward. But the interest in hydrogen power was always a bit of a wild card: no other commuter service in the world has yet been built to use the technology.

Last week, Metrolinx all but announced that the initiative was dead, stating on its website that its “reference concept design” going forward — essentially, the blueprint that private contractors will be asked to bid on to deliver the actual electric trains later this decade — will not include hydrogen power.

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Technically speaking, this isn’t the final nail in hydrail’s coffin: a private bidder could still, in theory, come to Metrolinx with a hydrogen-based plan and compete with other vendors. But the announcement of the RCD makes it clear that, at least in 2021, the technology simply isn’t there yet.

“For heavy commuter rail operations such as GO services, the objectives to increase rail services, lower operational costs and reduce reliance on carbon-based energy sources may not be met by this technology in the immediate term,” Metrolinx’s announcement says of basically every form of propulsion except overhead wires.

If someone wants to try to convince Metrolinx — and, at least as importantly, the provincial government — that it should make a go of hydrogen anyway, they’ll face some steep obstacles. As well as being explicitly ambivalent, the transit operator is also already doing a lot of the work to clear the way for overhead wires; it’s making structural changes at Union Station in downtown Toronto, for example, and ensuring sufficient clearance when replacing bridges over train tracks. In short, any company that tries to bring a hydrogen plan to Metrolinx will have a lot of upfront costs to account for — not least the hydrogen-fuelling infrastructure that does not yet exist — while the Ontario taxpayer will have partly paid for the work that conventional electrification requires. If that’s not an impossible hill to climb, it’s at least very difficult.

The argument for hydrogen trains was always a heady brew of high-tech boosterism and industrial policy with the barest seasoning of actual merit. On the merits, hydrogen proponents could make some real claims: namely, that electrification was going to require a large upfront investment that would take years to pay off, while hydrogen infrastructure could be built out more incrementally and potentially at lower cost. They also argued that hydrogen trains could be fuelled overnight, while conventional electric trains will be, by definition, drawing large electric loads during rush-hour commutes.

Those are real issues, but they’re entirely solvable ones. Indeed, they’ve been solved by rail operators around the world: conventional electrification with overhead wires relies on well-understood technologies that are available at predictable prices from multiple global vendors. Which isn’t to say that there won’t be cost overruns (this is Toronto transit building, after all). But the downside risk is much more predictable than it would be going all-in on hydrogen.

Meanwhile, the few hydrogen trains that exist today don’t meet the performance requirements that Metrolinx has specified for its future plans and haven’t been used on the scale the company envisions. Ontario would effectively be gambling that it could develop domestic manufacturing capacity for a product that doesn’t yet exist in the hopes of capturing future market share. We’ve tried that before in Ontario and come to regret it.

Del Duca, for his part, was characteristically laconic about the end-for-now of hydrogen trains. Speaking with reporters last Thursday about the return of the legislature this week, he said that he’d been excited by the potential of hydrogen trains when he was transportation minister and still thinks that hydrogen will play a role in Ontario’s future — especially if he wins an election next year.

“I would say … across the board, when we look at zero-emission vehicles, I know there are some challenges given that we don’t have all of the infrastructure and technology just yet here in the province of Ontario,” Del Duca said. “But I think that as Ontario, Canada, and the world look for fuel sources for transportation in general that don’t make the climate crisis worse, I do believe that hydrogen needs to be an important part of that conversation.”

But the more basic problem with Ontario’s hydrail dreams was always that, instead of answering the question “how can we best move people around the GTHA quickly and economically?” it was an attempt to answer the question “how can we spend tens of billions of dollars in a way that will specifically enrich a handful of Ontario companies?” I’m not intrinsically opposed to industrial policy (Canada could use a stiff dose of vaccine-related dirigisme right about now). But shaping transit policy so that it helps out natural-gas companies — the likely future suppliers of hydrogen in the near term — was always dubious.

If this week truly spells the end of this chapter and lets Metrolinx get on with building a proper high-capacity electric-rail system in the GTHA, nobody should mourn the decision to abandon hydrogen. It’s a big world, and hydrogen will find a niche in it somewhere. In the meantime, the region’s commuters are slightly closer to having a better, faster way to get home.

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