Why the Liberals shouldn’t be too quick to get on board with hydrogen trains

OPINION: What happens when you put salesmen and government staffers in the same room with billions of dollars at stake? We’re about to find out, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on November 17, 2017
three Go Trains
As originally envisioned by Metrolinx, the electrification of the GO network would be based on well-known, tested technology. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

​The most telling moment of the day came early on Thursday at a conference, sponsored by the provincial government, on the virtues of hydrogen-fuelled trains. A presenter from the United States Department of Energy asked how many people in the room had driven a fuel-cell-powered car with hydrogen fuel, and at least two dozen hands went up in a room with 200 or so people in it.

That is way more than you’d see in any random sample, and more even than you’d expect in a survey of general transit fans. But this wasn’t a random sample, and the audience wasn’t neutral or disinterested. It was a room full of fans of hydrogen fuel cells talking to other fans of hydrogen fuel cells about how great hydrogen fuel cells are. On its own, this would be deeply nerdy but not worrisome. (Some reporters are also nerds.) But the fact that the Liberal government is considering how to spend $13 billion or so electrifying the GO rail network, means it’s also an important question of public policy.

As originally envisioned by Metrolinx, the electrification of the GO rail network would be based on well-known, tested technology: electric trainsets powered by overhead wires. But earlier this year, the government announced it was going to investigate whether it made sense for Ontario to opt for an untested alternative: trains powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which produce no flame, smoke, or carbon dioxide.

The pitch by hydrogen rail (or “hydrail”) advocates is simple: it’s potentially as clean as using electricity directly, and obviates the substantial expense of building those overhead wires. In Ontario’s case, there’s also the possibility that hydrogen could be produced using cheap, overnight electricity, while trains running beneath wires would necessarily be using electricity at the most expensive times of day.

Potentially. Possibility. Maybe. Hopefully. It’s an appealing technological vision, but nobody in the world has done anything with hydrail on the scale of GO’s electrification plan. Alstom just signed a deal with the German state of Lower Saxony for 14 trains, and Siemens has also begun design work on a hydrogen light rail vehicle, but these aren’t the kind of trains Metrolinx is looking for. Metrolinx is looking for a two-car trainset with two levels, like GO’s current passenger cars, or possibly a fuel-cell locomotive that could be a “drop-in” replacement for their current diesel engines.

In short, Metrolinx is asking for private companies to bid to make something that doesn’t currently exist. The costs are a big question mark. So is the performance. One of the reasons the government was going to go with overhead wires was that electric trains can accelerate faster than their diesel counterparts, allowing a railway to run more vehicles in and out of stations, safely. That means more frequent train service for riders. Can Metrolinx find a hydrogen train vendor that can meet those specs while delivering the number of trains needed by the 2025 deadline?

And can they do it while sticking to the $13 billion budget? The costs of electrification aren’t small, but they’re at least well-understood, and there’s reason enough to be confident they won’t shoot rapidly skyward. The risk of pursuing an unknown, unproven technology is that costs could explode, or the government could simply abandon its service targets. Instead of trains every 15 minutes or less, riders could be left with service no better than what they have now.

And while a study from California, cited at the symposium, projects hydrail costs coming in much lower than conventional electrification, that assumes the costs of overhead wires are amortized over many fewer trains than Metrolinx actually plans to run — 100 or so round trips weekly, as opposed to Metrolinx’s 6,000, if service is expanded as planned. The idea of powering hydrogen trains with Ontario’s copious overnight electricity surpluses, meanwhile, is kind of perverse: it uses the Liberals’ terrible record on energy policy to drive risky decisions on transportation policy.

For what it’s worth, Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca says riders don’t need to worry about the government’s dalliance with hydrail advocates. The goal is to deliver rapid, frequent train service to the GO network, and Del Duca says the Liberals aren’t about to fall down the rabbit hole chasing the latest shiny bauble.

“Fundamentally, we want to make sure we get it right,” he told TVO.org on Thursday after speaking at the conference. “I didn’t want us to get out the gate and start building electrification in the traditional way and then have missed the opportunity to produce a system that’s slightly ahead of developments elsewhere.”

“One way or another the decision will be made on what the numbers are telling us … we have to be comfortable on behalf of the people of Ontario that the technology is there and can be deployed in a reliable way in the short term,” he added. “There’s no thumb on the scales here.”

But it’s fair to question the government’s record on this file: the Liberals collectively, and Del Duca specifically, have a history of pressuring Metrolinx to come to the politically convenient answer no matter what the evidence says.

The mood at the symposium wasn’t reassuring, either: for a conference nominally about the prospects of improving train service in the GTA, some of the biggest boosters for fuel cell technology included natural gas companies (hydrogen can be extracted from methane) and car manufacturers. Automakers are welcome to their informed opinions as to what makes a good car, but they probably aren’t motivated by ensuring the best transit experience possible

In fact, it seemed as if the most exciting prospect for some in the room was that all the spending on hydrogen fuelling infrastructure might drive consumers toward fuel-cell cars, which have had a hard time competing with conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles, as well as with battery-powered electric cars such as those Tesla makes. (One panellist who said the industry needed to redouble its efforts on fuel cells “because Elon Musk gets too much airtime” was, perhaps, being too honest.)

It wouldn’t be right for the government to put up unnecessary obstacles for hydrogen fuel cells. The technology has some undeniable advantages that will find their place in the market. But it’s another thing entirely to say that the government should shape its $13 billion rail plan for the benefit of a handful of companies looking to use public money to shape the market to their advantage — especially given (as experience has taught us) that even companies that fail to deliver on their glittering promises will be well-compensated as they (regretfully; maybe even tearfully) ask for the next handout.

There was a lot of talk on Thursday about the “bravery” and “vision” it would take to choose hydrogen trains over “conventional” (and thus boring) electrification. But it’s easy to be brave when you’re gambling with other people’s money. Sometimes the hard thing in government is shouting down the flatterers and courtiers who know that, in this world, even failures make out like bandits.

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