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TRAIN TRAVEL

Whistle blows in Germany for world’s first hydrogen train fleet

Germany on Wednesday will inaugurate a railway line powered entirely by hydrogen, a "world first" and a major step forward for green train transport despite nagging supply challenges.

Hydrogen train Lower Saxony
The new hydrogen train travels through Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

A fleet of 14 trains provided by French industrial giant Alstom to the German state Lower Saxony will replace the diesel locomotives on the 100 kilometres (60 miles) of track connecting the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude near Hamburg.

“Whatever the time of day, passengers will travel on this route thanks to hydrogen”, Stefan Schrank, project manager at Alstom, told AFP, hailing a “world first”.

Hydrogen trains have become a promising way to decarbonise the rail sector and replace diesel, which still powers 20 percent of journeys in Germany.

Billed as a “zero emission” mode of transport, the trains mix hydrogen on board with oxygen present in the ambient air, thanks to a fuel cell installed in the roof. This produces the electricity needed to pull the train.

Run for its money

Designed in the southern French town of Tarbes and assembled in Salzgitter in central Germany, Alstom’s trains — called Coradia iLint — are trailblazers in the sector.

The project drew investment of “several tens of millions of euros” and created jobs for up to 80 employees in the two countries, according to Alstom.

Commercial trials have been carried out since 2018 on the line with two hydrogen trains but now the entire fleet is adopting the ground-breaking technology.

READ ALSO: Renewable energy: Germany aims for ‘world number one’ spot in green hydrogen

The French group has inked four contracts for several dozen trains between Germany, France and Italy, with no sign of demand waning.

In Germany alone “between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains could be replaced by hydrogen models”, Schrank estimates.

“By 2035, around 15 to 20 percent of the regional European market could run on hydrogen,” Alexandre Charpentier, rail expert at consultancy Roland Berger, told AFP.

Hydrogen trains are particularly attractive on short regional lines where the cost of a transition to electric outstrips the profitability of the route.

Currently, around one out of two regional trains in Europe runs on diesel.

But Alstom’s competitors are ready to give it a run for its money. German behemoth Siemens unveiled a prototype hydrogen train with national rail company Deutsche Bahn in May, with a view to a roll-out in 2024.

But, despite the attractive prospects, “there are real barriers” to a big expansion with hydrogen, Charpentier said.

For starters, trains are not the only means of transport hungry for the fuel.

The entire sector, whether it be road vehicles or aircraft, not to mention heavy industry such as steel and chemicals, are eyeing hydrogen to slash CO2 emissions.

READ ALSO: Germany’s first ‘green’ kerosene plant paves way for eco-friendly flights

Colossal investment

Although Germany announced in 2020 an ambitious €7 billion plan to become a leader in hydrogen technologies within a decade, the infrastructure is still lacking in Europe’s top economy.

It is a problem seen across the continent, where colossal investment would be needed for a real shift to hydrogen.

“For this reason, we do not foresee a 100-percent replacement of diesel trains with hydrogen,” Charpentier said.

Furthermore, hydrogen is not necessarily carbon-free: only “green hydrogen”, produced using renewable energy, is considered sustainable by experts.

Other, more common manufacturing methods exist, but they emit greenhouse gases because they are made from fossil fuels.

The Lower Saxony line will in the beginning have to use a hydrogen by-product of certain industries such as the chemical sector.

Alstom employee hydrogen train Germany

An Alstom employee drives the hydrogen train. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

The French research institute IFP specialising in energy issues says that hydrogen is currently “95 percent derived from the transformation of fossil fuels, almost half of which come from natural gas”.

Europe’s enduring reliance on gas from Russia amid massive tensions over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine poses major challenges for the development of hydrogen in rail transport.

“Political leaders will have to decide which sector to prioritise when determining what the production of hydrogen will or won’t go to,” Charpentier said.

Germany will also have to import massively to meet its needs.

Partnerships have recently been signed with India and Morocco, and an agreement to import hydrogen from Canada was on the agenda this week during a visit by Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

READ ALSO: 5 things to know about public transport in Germany after the €9 ticket

By Florian Cazeres

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WEATHER

‘Clear indication of climate change’: Germany logs warmest year on record

Looking at data from 2,000 measuring systems around Germany, the German Weather Service (DWD) said that 2022 marked the warmest year on record through November.

'Clear indication of climate change': Germany logs warmest year on record

“Never since 1881 has the period from January to November in Germany been so warm as in 2022,” said DWD spokesman Uwe Kirsche in a statement on Wednesday.

The average temperature for the first eleven months of 2022 was 11.3C, according to the weather service in Offenbach. The previous high was set in 2020, at 11.1C for this period. 

The temperature average for autumn alone was 10.8 degrees – an entire 2C degrees higher than it was between 1961 to 1990, which is used by meteorologists around the globe as a point of reference. 

Clear indication of climate change

The period from January to October was already the warmest on record, with an average temperature of 11.8C. For meteorologists, autumn ends with November, whereas in calendar terms, it lasts until December 21st. 

It is “a clear indication of climate change;” that the warmest October months of the last 140 years all fall in this millennium, said DWD.

READ ALSO: ‘A glimpse into our climate future’: Germany logs warmest October on record

Autumn 2022 could have easily been mistaken for summer in some regions of Germany, it said. The mercury reached the highest in Kleve on the Lower Rhine on September 5th, where temperatures soared to a sizzling 32.3C.

weather Germany september

Beach goers in Westerland, Schleswig-Holstein on September 25th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Molter

Rainy regions

The mild weather extended into November, before temperatures took a dramatic dip in many parts of the country. 

In the Oberharz am Brocken, the mercury dropped all the way to -11.6C on November 20th, the nationwide low for this autumn.

READ ALSO: Germany to see first snowfall after mild November

But despite the early warm spells, autumn was also “slightly wetter than average,” according to DWD. An average of around 205 liters of precipitation per squar metre fell across Germany.

That was about twelve percent more than in the reference period from 1961 to 1990. Compared to 1991 to 2020, the increase was about eight percent.

The Black Forest and the Alps received the most rainfall. Utzenfeld in the southern Black Forest had the highest daily precipitation in Germany with 86 litres per square meter on October 14th. In contrast, it remained very dry in the northeast. 

However, there were also a fair few bright, sunny days for people to enjoy. According to DWD, the sun shone for a good 370 hours this autumn – almost 20 percent more than in the period from 1961 to 1990 and 15 percent more than in the period from 1991 to 2020.

The North German Lowlands saw the most sun, with residents there getting a solid 400 hours of sunshine over autumn. 

Temperatures to drop this week

Just in time for the start of the meteorological winter on December 1st, temperatures will drop significantly into the low negatives in many parts of the country.

On the weekend, there is a risk of permafrost in some regions of eastern Germany. The nights will also become increasingly frosty, with snow expected in many regions by the end of the week.

Roads are expected to turn icy, but with no major snowstorms, said DWD.

READ ALSO: Will Germany see more snow this winter?

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