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CP’s hydrogen locomotive: The next step in rail evolution?

What’s the next chapter in the history of rail? Modern trains are already models of efficiency and innovation. But CP is pushing the envelope with one of the building blocks of human life: hydrogen-powered trains. And they could play a role in Canada’s decarbonization efforts while moving goods from coast to coast.

CP’s hydrogen-powered locomotive is symbolic of its commitment to moving the rail industry forward. It works by combining hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, with oxygen from the air inside a fuel cell. The chemical reaction generates electricity, which in turn drives the wheels of the locomotive. The only resulting emission is water, which exhausts as vapour — a small reminder of the locomotive’s steam-powered origins.

“It’s water vapour; not technically steam,” explains Matthew Findlay, Director of Mechanical Systems at Canadian Pacific. “But when you see the unit going by, and there’s steam coming out the side, it is a bit of a flashback.”

Matthew Findlay, Director of Mechanical Systems at Canadian Pacific

 

The main advantage of hydrogen propulsion is its operational flexibility, explains Findlay. If scaled up, we could easily adapt current train fueling and maintenance routines to this new technology. For example, current diesel-powered engines use direct-to-locomotive fueling. A fuel truck will park and refill the locomotive in the field, removing the need to travel to a brick-and-mortar fueling facility. Hydrogen trains could follow a similar process and achieve much shorter fueling times than what would be required to recharge large battery packs.

This makes the technology ideal in freight transport compared to other solutions. If the train relied 100 per cent on battery power, it would have to return to a charging station every night — not ideal when our supply chain depends on speed and fluidity.

Findlay says there are many hurdles to scaling up this innovation. One of the biggest challenges for Canada will be to adapt its fueling infrastructure to better support hydrogen trains.

We’ll also have to be mindful of upfront costs, explains Findlay. But, over the long term, hydrogen-powered trains stand to be more cost-efficient overall. Hydrogen powertrains have fewer moving parts than their diesel-burning counterparts, which means fewer things can break. This creates the potential for lower maintenance costs. , allowing them to move more tonnage with less fuel. This could significantly lower the cost of operation. Plus, when we factor in future carbon pricing, it may be cheaper to produce hydrogen than traditional combustibles.

Will hydrogen one day be the dominant train propulsion method in Canada? It’s hard to say, admits Findlay. We’ll likely have several innovations growing at once, each serving a different function in the rail system. But no matter what the future holds, Findlay and his team at CP are leaving their mark on railway history.