Rail (passenger and freight) industry has been under pressure to tackle climate change, local and noise emissions. The current available powertrain technologies to reach the reduced greenhouse (GHG) and zero local emissions demands are electric (fed from the power grid), battery and fuel cell.
However, the associated infrastructure costs (electrical equipments and the required overhead catenary infrastructure) have limited the electric option to heavy loaded corridors. Battery electric powered rail vehicles could be another potential option, but their system recharging requirements might significantly limit the system’s availability, thus, impacting the rail vehicle’s on-the-job performance.
The recent breakthrough of fuel cell technology in the heavy duty road industry (mainly transit buses), allied with its operational flexibility and environmental performance has opened the way for this groundbreaking technology in the rail industry.
Fuel cells generate electricity onboard, using hydrogen or hydrogen rich hydrocarbon fuels. Electricity is, then, stored in batteries or fed directly into a rail vehicle’s high voltage propulsion system.
From an operational perspective, fuel cell powered rail vehicles might replace diesel ones in a one-to-one relationship, with the same range and running times, and a more efficient and less noisy powertrain. Moreover, the on-site refilling station is the only additional infrastructure element required, compared to diesel rail vehicle baselines. In short, fuel cell technology might offer a long term local zero emission alternative, fast refuelling (like diesel), flexibility, with self-electrification, integration with a renewable energy source and a quiet operation.
Given their outstanding operational and environmental features, several rail market niches might be addressed by the fuel cell technology: i) light rail and trams in urban environments; ii) commuter and regional trains operating on non electrified tracks; iii) shunt or switch locomotives in rail yards (generally located on central portions of large cities or at the crossroads of major rail distribution hubs); iv) underground mining locomotives, and v) line haul locomotives.
Since 2002, there has been an intense activity in the global development of fuel cell technology for the rail industry for both passenger and freight markets.
This work is supposed to present, based on the compilation of information from a multitude of acknowledged sources, a review of fuel cell rail technology, followed by an overview of fuel cell rail experiences and feasibility studies, highlighting their main outcomes, as well as fuel cell technology potential to offer lower operational costs (fuel and maintenance) and improved performance for the rail industry.