One of the more bizarre election stories appeared in the Globe and Mail today — Dalton McGuinty is advancing the idea of hydrogen-fuelled GO Trains.
Regular readers here will know that my opinion of hydrogen as a transit fuel is thinly-veiled contempt on the best of days, and I am astounded to see McGuinty wandering down this technological dead end.
Fuel cells and hydrogen power have their uses, but they run into difficulties even at the scale of a city bus, let alone a railway car. If this were used for GO equipment, it would be at best for self-propelled cars running on minor lines that did not warrant full, locomotive-hauled trains. This is a niche market, not a mainstream replacement for existing equipment.
The article, by the usually well-informed Jeff Gray, says:
Most trains in the world use either greenhouse-gas-emitting diesel engines or electricity, which is cleaner but is still often generated using greenhouse-gas-producing coal plants.
A train that uses a hydrogen fuel cell to combine hydrogen with oxygen to create the electricity needed to run its motor would essentially be a zero-emissions vehicle, producing only water vapour, proponents say.
This is the usual bumpf about hydrogen power. Somehow, magically, it is a green energy source. However, the next paragraph tells us:
The trains might run on hydrogen produced by Ontario’s nuclear plants.
Yes, folks, you need energy to create the hydrogen gas in the first place, and roughly half of the electrical energy you use is wasted in splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. Next, you have to get the hydrogen to the train, and this requires infrastructure for transmission and storage.
It’s a lot simpler to just string overhead above the tracks and power the locomotive directly with electricity. The diesel engine, by the way, doesn’t drive the train, it drives a generator to run the electric motors that drive the train.
Bombardier, to their credit, has not made any claims about jobs for Thunder Bay even though they have been drawn into this scheme. The reason is simple: Bombardier does not make locomotives, it makes passenger cars, and GO will need these regardless of the propulsion technology.
Of course, in the best tradition of Ontario transit projects, we could waste billions on a scheme that is an alleged technology leap and is greener than green. Spending money on facilities and services we actually need has always been a distant second consideration for transit planning in these parts.
GO Transit Electrification on the Lake Shore corridor is part of Move Ontario, and the Liberals would do us a big favour by concentrating on that project rather than wasting years on a technological boondoggle. Alas, transportation policy seems to come not from the GTTA but from the Premier, and we can expect more of this sort of meddling.