Ontario is thinking about hydrogen-powered trains. Why?

OPINION: The province has a long history of considering electrified commuter trains, and then choosing something else instead. Here’s hoping history doesn’t repeat itself
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 16, 2017
the Union Pearson Express in Toronto
Is Ontario's troubled history of picking bad train technology about to repeat itself? (Stephen C. Host/CP)

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On Thursday, Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca announced that the province was proceeding with the latest step in the long-term plan to transform GO rail into an all-day, two-way service with frequent trains instead of the rush-hour commuter service it has traditionally been: an environmental assessment of the the purchase of new, electrically powered trains. It’s a key step in the move towards the Liberals’ Regional Express Rail (RER) transformation and it’s overdue: GO first considered electrification in the 1980s.

But progress is progress. Except when it isn’t.

Separately from the electrification assessment, the government also wants to look at the feasibility of using hydrogen fuel cells to power GO’s trains for RER. Fuel cells — the wonder technology of the future for the past 20 years — combine hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical reaction, generating only electricity and water as byproducts. The government points to the recent advances in fuel cell technology to show that it’s maturing into something they’d be remiss not to consider. Manufacturer Alstom has a train they’re already lining up customers for, making this something that Ontario could get in on the ground floor of.

Except even if the train exists and isn’t powered by unicorn dreams, that doesn’t make it the right train for what Metrolinx is supposed to be planning.

(Here is where we need to get into a bit of rail terminology, but in brief.) The government plans rely on buying dozens of electric multiple unit trains (EMUs), which do away with the traditional locomotive-and-car trains and instead combine both power and passenger space in the same cars. EMUs are more efficient, cleaner, and can accelerate more quickly than the existing locomotives, meaning passengers spend less time waiting for the train to simply get up to speed. 

There are also diesel multiple units (DMUs) which accomplish the same thing, like the train that runs along the Union-Pearson Express line. The UPX train is not as green as an electrified alternative, but plenty of train operators use them in areas where the cost of running overhead electrical wires isn’t justified by passenger counts. But Metrolinx has explicitly ruled out using DMU technology on the basis of cost and performance, saying it would cost twice as much per passenger.

Where fuel cell trains fit in to all this isn’t clear.

Alstom confirmed in an email to TVO.org that its Coradia iLint train, powered by hydrogen fuel cells, is roughly similar in performance to the diesel-powered model it’s based on. It's also much much cleaner. That’s great for agencies that are already operating them, and we can fairly wish Alstom a lot of success without necessarily presuming its product is right for Metrolinx. If the transit agency has already ruled DMUs out due to costs, it’s fair to assume that hydrogen trains will continue to be more expensive than the diesel trains they can replace for some time to come. The cost of building the infrastructure needed to fuel these trains is also a big question mark, which is not the case for electrical wires.


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A more basic anxiety around all this is that Ontario is, once again, pursuing a shiny bauble when tested technology we need is sitting on the shelf waiting to be used. The basic parameters of the rail expansion plan are well-known. Everything, including the name, has been borrowed from France and other jurisdictions that have done it well for decades. Hydrogen fuel cells may do wonders in the future, but they’re totally unnecessary right now.

Ontario doesn’t need to reinvent the steel wheel, but we seem to love doing so.

The first time Ontario seriously considered electrification, in the last years of then-premier Bill Davis’ government, it went down the blind alley of the GO-ALRT technology, a vision of driverless electric trains spiriting commuters to and from work on vehicles like the ones now used on the the Scarborough RT line and Vancouver’s Skytrain. GO-ALRT never actually materialized, and was killed in 1985, after the Tories were replaced by David Peterson’s Liberal government.

It’s fair to ask if Ontario is going to repeat the mistakes of yesteryear.

TVO.org contacted Metrolinx and Del Duca’s offices, to ask why they’re bothering with all this. Metrolinx maintains that investigating hydrogen trains won’t distract from the separate assessment process on conventional electrification. “If the feasibility study determines that hydrail is an option for our network and we ultimately decide to proceed with this technology, we would still be electrifying our network. It is a different technology, but it is still electrification,” Anne Marie Aikins of Metrolinx said on Friday. “Studying the feasibility of [hydrogen] technology is part of our due diligence to ensure that we choose the appropriate technology to electrify the GO rail network.”

It’s also true that the overhead wires electrification relies on aren’t without their potential problems: to pick just one example, GO will need to be more rigorous about clearing tree branches from its rights-of-way and, in some cases, may need to cut down trees altogether — something that consistently ignites firestorms of protest in Toronto, even for popular transit projects.

The government reiterated Metrolinx’s caution. “Since 2010, hydrogen fuel cell technology has advanced to the point that other jurisdictions are taking a much closer look,” Del Duca’s press secretary Celso Pereira wrote in an email. “To make sure we get this right, Ontario is exercising its due diligence to ensure that we choose the appropriate technology to electrify the GO rail network.”

The cost of investigating fuel cell trains is minor compared to the billions Ontario is spending on its overall rail plan, and the impulse to make sure a looming technological change doesn’t disrupt existing plans is welcome enough. But hydrogen-fueled trains come with numerous risks, and there's no evidence they’re needed to help Metrolinx achieve its goals — or by extension, help Ontarians get anywhere any more quickly. Unless the government can demonstrate otherwise, it should gather the facts, deliberate, and then stick with the overhead wires that get the job done.

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