Hydrogen fuel cell trains to run on British railways from 2022

Ed Wiseman
The 'Breeze' hydrogen fuel cell train could run on British rails in the next three years

Hydrogen-powered trains could run on British railways as early as 2022, as plans to introduce fuel cell technology to the network gather pace.

French rail multinational Alstom and UK rolling stock operating company (ROSCO) Eversholt Rail Group have today unveiled the design for a new hydrogen fuel cell train for the UK market. Based on the tried-and-tested British Rail Class 321, the fuel cell trains – nicknamed ‘Breeze’ – will bring zero-emission hydrogen tech to parts of the UK that still run on diesel.

“Hydrogen train technology is an exciting innovation which has the potential to transform our railway, making journeys cleaner and greener by cutting CO2 emissions even further. We are working with industry to establish how hydrogen trains can play an important part in the future, delivering better services on rural and inter-urban routes,” said Andrew Jones MP, UK Rail Minister.

By converting the electrical multiple units (EMUs) to what Alstom describes as a hydrogen multiple unit (HMU), the Paris based firm will combine the efficiency and practicality of the existing rolling stock with the versatility and environmental benefits of hydrogen fuel cells.  

The conversion work is expected to take place over the next three years at Alstom’s Widnes facility, with the first trains projected to run as early as 2022.

The hydrogen multiple units will be able to replace diesel trains on some routes, drastically reducing the environmental impact of rail travel 

“The Breeze will be a clean new train for the UK with a stylish, modern look,” said Nick Crossfield, Alstom UK & Ireland Managing Director. 

The railways need to decarbonise and the Government has rightly set out a goal to eliminate diesel rolling stock by 2040. Hydrogen trains offer an ideal solution for routes which are unlikely to benefit from electrification, and our innovative engineering solution means they can now fit within the UK loading gauge and can quickly be ready to roll on Britain’s railways.

“In Germany, Alstom’s hydrogen trains are already transporting passengers in the comfort and quiet that is characteristic of these trains. The Breeze offers British rail users the opportunity to share in the pleasure that is a journey on a hydrogen train.”

The trains will be converted by Alstom and then owned by Eversholt, which will then lease them to rail operators. They are unlikely to be of much use on networks with widespread electrification (such as those found in the South East of England) but in areas without third rails or overhead lines, the HMUs will deliver much-needed zero-emission mobility.

Hydrogen fuel cell trains are already in passenger use in Germany 

“Eversholt Rail has an enviable record of innovation across its rolling stock portfolio,”  Said Eversholt Rail Client Relations Director Stephen Timothy.

“Combining the experience gained from the successful Coradia iLint and Class 321 Renatus programmes will deliver a hydrogen-powered multiple unit product that will meet sponsors’ and train operators’ aspirations for the earliest possible fleet introduction.”

A hydrogen fuel cell works by converting hydrogen into electricity, which can then be used to run an electric motor. The 'emission' from this process is pure, drinkable water, making it a non-polluting power source for cars, trains and other vehicles. Further advantages over battery-electric technology include the rapidity with which a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle can be 'recharged' – a couple of minutes (roughly the same as a petrol car) in comparison to several hours for a BEV. 

The hydrogen fuel cell Class 321 trains should offer better space for passengers than diesel ones 

“Transport in the UK has evolved over centuries from the world’s first steam train to the tens of thousands of electric vehicles on our roads today thanks to our nation of innovators,”  said Claire Perry MP, UK Minister for Energy and Clean Growth.

“This new hydrogen powered train, which will only emit water, is further proof of the UK’s continued creativity to transform the way we travel as we continue to move to a greener, cleaner economy. The UK is on track when it comes to growing a world-leading hydrogen economy, and through our modern Industrial Strategy we are providing £23 million to power our ambition to be the ‘go-to’ place for first-class hydrogen transport.”