Saudi Arabia counts on Alstom to run hydrogen trains in the desert

Alstom, the French industrial pioneer in this clean technology, has signed a memorandum of understanding with the kingdom in order to reflect on the development of suitable hydrogen train solutions.

The hydrogen train is presented as the solution to replace the polluting diesel-powered trains that are still numerous in Europe and around the world, particularly in secondary networks. However, the electrification of these lines is not possible given the cost/profitability ratio.

It is a reality in Europe. In Germany, where 20% of rail journeys are made with diesel trains, a fleet of fourteen hydrogen trainsprovided by the French Alstom to the region of Lower Saxony (north), since August has replaced the diesel trains on the hundred kilometers of the line connecting the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehud, not far from Hamburg.

Hydrogen trains will also soon run in Italy, Sweden and France where twelve trains have been ordered by the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Occitanie, Grand Est and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes regions for entry into service in 2025 at best. .

Net Zero Commitment

And it could make its first breakthrough outside the Old Continent, precisely in Saudi Arabia. Alstom indeed signed a memorandum of understanding a few weeks ago with Saudi Railway Company (SAR) in order to reflect on the development of hydrogen train solutions adapted to the local climate.

“The aim is to explore opportunities for the future of sustainable mobility in Saudi Arabia (…) to develop and implement railway-related solutions
infrastructure and capabilities aligned with Vision 2030,” reads a statement.

“The focus on sustainable mobility solutions, including hydrogen, technology will be a key catalyst for the diversification and economic growth of the Kingdom,” comments Mama Sougoufara, Managing Director of Alstom for the Middle-East region. Orient, East Africa, North Africa and Turkey.

Recall that Saudi Arabia has announced its Net Zero commitment (carbon emissions) by 2060, so rail transport will play a key role in achieving this goal. The Kingdom has only four railway lines on a network of barely 3700 kilometers. And with the exception of the high-speed line of a few hundred kilometers between Mecca and Medina, which is electrified, the trains are towed there today by 100% diesel locomotives.

The kingdom wants to triple its rail network

But the kingdom intends to invest massively in rail. Last January, Saudi Arabia announced plans to triple the size of its rail network with 8,000 kilometers of new track. A new network which will partly have to be clean, the country wishing to continue to rely on its immense oil resources.

“The energy transition must be carefully considered,” said Prince Abdelaziz at the head of the kingdom.

“This is a leap into the future, an unfortunately unknown future. We must not give up energy security in the name of a publicity stunt.”

The challenge is immense. Because it will not simply be a question of exporting Coradia iLint hydrogen trainsets to the country.

“Each railway line is particular and needs to be evaluated and may require adjustments in the products developed, as well as different requirements from customers and operators. The climate and the environment are also among the factors that require studies and can lead to other adjustments and adaptations” explains the industrialist.

It will also be necessary to deploy the ecosystem that allows hydrogen trains to circulate: storage and refueling stations (even if a hydrogen train is theoretically capable of running more than 1,000 kilometers without recharging). Without forgetting the production which is still rare and not always green.

The ecosystem challenge

Only “green hydrogen”, produced using renewable energy, is considered sustainable by experts. Other manufacturing methods exist, much more common, but they emit greenhouse gases because they are made from fossil fuels.

According to the French research institute IFP, which specializes in energy issues, hydrogen is currently “95% derived from the transformation of fossil fuels, almost half of which from natural gas”.

These are all issues that require colossal investments. Especially since the trains are not the only ones to be thirsty for hydrogen. The entire transport sector, road or air, but also heavy industry, in particular steel and chemicals, rely on this technology to reduce their CO2 emissions.

But for the moment, this appetite for railway hydrogen benefits Alstom. If its big competitor, the German Siemens, unveiled last May a hydrogen train prototype with Deutsche Bahnit will not be put into service before 2024.

Olivier Chicheportiche Journalist BFM Business

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