Hydrogen – The key to creating a global carbon-neutral infrastructure?

Article based on a discussion from the Moving beyond podcast episode 7

How will hydrogen trains revolutionize the transportation sector? That’s the question discussed by Jochen Steinbauer, Platform Director H2 Technologies at Siemens Mobility, and Prof. Dr. Klaus Bonhoff, Head of Department for Policy Issues at the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV), in the latest episode of the Siemens Mobility podcast “Moving beyond”. The clear conclusion: Both interviewees attest that the hydrogen drive is ready for the market and see it as the first choice for regional trains.


The view of the energy transition has changed drastically since February 2022. With the war in Ukraine, the move away from fossil fuels is more necessary than ever and needs to accelerate significantly. The low rate of railway electrification in Europe - especially in regional transport – is one of the core problems in the decarbonization of rail transport. Until now, the expensive electrification of additional routes was considered the only way to become independent of fossil fuels, while at the same time reducing emissions: but the overhead line costs up to three million euros per kilometer. The time factor also counts against the idea that a route conversion in regional traffic could quickly bring improvement. In Germany, for example, only 60 kilometers of railway were newly electrified in 2021. If there were still 6,000 kilometers of track without overhead lines, it would take 100 years – at the same speed – before the German rail network could operate entirely electrically. Germany is in a comparatively good position with 60 percent of the route network currently electrified. Especially many Eastern European countries lag well behind.

Hydrogen trains – the perfect replacement for diesel engines

The fuel cell drive is increasingly coming into focus. The conversion of the rolling stock to innovative technology that uses hydrogen as fuel is now even cheaper for operators than the electrification of routes that have been previously served with diesel locomotives. Fuel cell trains such as the Mireo Plus H, which Deutsche Bahn will be using from 2024, are ready for the market, can be used seamlessly on non-electrified routes and are capable of approximately 1,000 kilometres of range. Locally emission-free – an H2 railcar saves around 330 tons of CO2 per year – a significantly lower noise level and lower maintenance requirements when compared with diesel trains are all factors that favor this technology. Refuelling is also quick: a train can be filled for a further 1,000 kilometres in around 50 minutes.

There is already no reason today to buy diesel trains.
Jochen Steinbauer, Platform Director H2 Technologies for Regional Trains, Siemens Mobility 

Green electricity is also available and cheap – and hydrogen is an important storage medium. Therefore, the German government is supporting the latest European Commission regulation, which calls on its member states to build a hydrogen infrastructure. Although it is based on the road network, synergetic use for rail traffic is obvious, given that only a few refuelling stations are required for hydrogen-powered regional trains. Germany benefits from the H2 Mobility Initiative, which began in 2009 and now has around 100 hydrogen filling stations. Appropriate financing programs will also encourage further development.

Latest generation fuel cell technology

The technological development of fuel cell drives is also making progress. The new Siemens Mireo Plus H uses a unit specially developed for this application by the specialist Ballard, financed by Siemens Mobility at a cost of 10 million dollars. The Canadian manufacturer has been developing and producing fuel cell systems for more than 40 years. Around 1,000 engineers in Vancouver are working exclusively on the environmentally friendly drive. With better efficiency and a longer service life, the new generation of fuel cells is well prepared for the future. 

Driving force for the hydrogen economy

Hydrogen-powered fuel cell trains can make a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions and traffic, and they are even an ideal replacement for existing diesel trains. Therefore hydrogen trains have a perfect future.
Jochen Steinbauer, Platform Director H2 Technologies for Regional Trains, Siemens Mobility 

Hydrogen trains can also be of decisive importance for the energy transition as a whole – as an important impetus for the start of the hydrogen economy. Fuel cell trains consume large, but above all plannable amounts of hydrogen. With a fleet of ten trains, the operators can calculate a consumption of around five tons of hydrogen per day. The emission-free trains thus ensure a basic utilization of the electrolysers and get the hydrogen economy going. Conversely, more hydrogen production also means accelerating the adoption of renewable energy in the global energy ecosystem. Because only hydrogen offers the flexibility to bring renewable energies to exactly where they are needed.

With the hydrogen fuel cell technology we are ready for the market. Without hydrogen we will not achieve our goal of reducing emissions in the transport sector.
Prof. Dr. Klaus Bonhoff, Head of Department for Policy Issues, German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure 
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