The Landesnahverkehrsgesellschaft Niedersachsen mbH (LNVG) intends to use 102 battery-electric multiple units on northern German routes from 2029. They are to gradually replace all diesel vehicles by 2037.
The remarkable thing about it: Further hydrogen trains are not planned. The LNVG launched the world’s first pilot project of this kind. Since 2018, it has operated two Alstom Coradia iLint hydrogen railcars on the Elbe-Weser (evb) routes between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude. In August 2022, another twelve railcars were added. They should continue to do their job and completely replace the diesel trains on the evb routes from 2024. 93 million euros were invested in the project. A dedicated hydrogen filling station was also built in Bremervörde.
For the electrification of the remaining north German routes, however, the LNVG now relies exclusively on batteries or overhead lines. A market survey revealed: “Battery trains are cheaper to operate,” says the corresponding press release. The first battery-electric trains are scheduled to go into operation on the “Heidekreuz” lines southwest of Lüneburg in 2029.
Everyday life with the hydrogen trains “all in all very positive”
The hydrogen project also attracted a great deal of international attention. The decision to now go ahead without hydrogen has often been interpreted as a failure of this approach. LNVG spokesman Dirk Altwig contradicts: “It is important to us that the decision ‘hydrogen or battery’ was checked for each individual network in Lower Saxony. We would also have operated other networks with hydrogen trains if the corresponding result had come out.” The everyday experiences with the hydrogen trains were “all in all very positive”. Compared to diesel, passengers, local residents and train drivers were happy about smoother and quieter operation. “An evb colleague put it like this: ‘You give power and something comes straight away from the electric motors.'”
The online magazine Quartz had reported numerous difficulties. “Trains required new hardware and software to be adapted for the routes, staff shortages had not left time for train drivers to convert to hydrogen, and there were problems with refueling in winter.” Altwig replies: “The hydrogen trains demonstrate that the system works. There were difficulties with the details, which is not unusual for a new technology worldwide and is not surprising, for example it was about the interaction of software versions.”
The hydrogen trains have a range of over 1,000 kilometers. “That’s enough to use the evb network around Bremervörde for a whole day without refueling,” says Altwig. The range of the battery trains, on the other hand, is significantly shorter.
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Not only should the Coradia iLint not emit any toxic exhaust fumes, it should also be quieter than other trains.
Alternative to the diesel train
The market investigation has nevertheless shown that in the “other not yet electrified networks in Lower Saxony, batteries are the cheaper alternative to diesel”. The only exception is the route Oldenburg – Osnabrück, which should be provided with overhead lines.
What made the difference in favor of the battery: On sections of the route or in train stations, there are already overhead lines on which the trains can charge. In addition, “existing catenary systems could easily be extended without having to create additional energy supply infrastructure,” according to the LNVG. The batteries only have to bridge the gaps between the electrified sections – for example, where no contact wire can be laid because of a tunnel. “In addition or as an alternative, they can be charged at ‘charging islands’,” adds Altwig. A continuous charging network like the French “Draisy” concept is not necessary.
Baden-Württemberg came to a similar conclusion. For 16 non-electrified road sections, the country examined which would be the best alternative to diesel drives. Economic aspects were taken into account, but also “supplementary strategic aspects, such as closing the gap between existing routes with overhead lines, possible function in freight traffic or the option for diversion traffic,” according to the press release.
Hydrogen was not able to assert itself on any of the routes examined. Usually the cheapest was the combination of batteries with overhead lines. All that is necessary for this is “the electrification of individual sections of the route,” according to the press release. “For the operation of hydrogen-hybrid trains, a corresponding filling station infrastructure or production sites for green hydrogen would have to be set up.” It can already be said that hydrogen hybrid trains “will not be considered further in the near future due to various operational and economic reasons”.
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