Is hydrogen the future of Californian trains?

When an order for up to 29 H2-powered trainsets is announced, many are wondering if the future is here.

Stadler, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for hydrogen trains. Many people wonder if this will be the direction rail will take as it decarbonizes.

The contract begins with the design and delivery of four trainsets, followed by no less than 25.

As Hydrogen Fuel News recently reported, the deal will see Stadler create and supply four zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell trainsets. Beyond the first four, the memorandum of understanding also leaves the door open to orders for up to 25 additional trains. The intention is to use the trainsets to replace existing state-funded Amtrac California diesel locomotives that operate push-pull sets.

The replacement units will be based on the first two-car H2 engine trains that the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) ordered from Stadler three years ago. These trains should start to be used in 2024.

As the hydrogen fuel infrastructure is put in place, hydrogen trains could enter California’s future.

The first four new H2-powered trains are expected to enter service in 2027, where they will be used along the route between Merced and Sacramento in California’s Central Valley. These first four H2 trains are the longer intercity versions of Stadler’s original ZEMU design. They will be manufactured in Utah at the Stadler factory in Salt Lake City. The hydrogen fuel cells will be supplied by the Canadian company Ballard. The H2-powered trains will have a range of 497 miles.

This is likely to function as a test of the operation and maintenance of the vehicle under real circumstances. There are only plans to expand this contract and similar H2-powered opportunities as the state seeks zero carbon emission goals in the coming years.

The state has made great efforts to decarbonize, having set targets and regulations at many levels of transportation. This includes laws on the sale of zero-emission cars, trucks, and other vehicles that will run on state roads.

That said, the state has also announced its goal of making all passenger rail travel carbon-free by 2035. Ordering the first wave of H2-powered trainsets and the option for more is a central part of this strategy.