When Will Dalton Discover Hot Air?

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.

21 thoughts on “When Will Dalton Discover Hot Air?

  1. Heh. While drafting my own post on this I thought “I wonder if Steve Munro’s seen this?” and opened a new browser tab 🙂

    The other point is that you can just as easily generate hydrogen from the output of a coal plant and drive electric trains from a nuclear plant – since nuclear plants don’t, as Gray’s article appears to claim, produce hydrogen in normal service. The running of hydrogen freights from Darlington and Pickering to the rest of the GO network won’t win any friends either.


  2. Yep, I almost fell over when I read that. I don’t know what’s worse: that McGuinty actually believes that hydrogen is green, or that he knows better but is trying to fool us in an attempt to play the green card.

    It’s sad, really. It’s stunts like this that leads the public to believe there is a magic environmental bullet that will save us: cheap, plentiful, green fuel – just around the corner. This way we never have to actually cut back – technology will save us from our excesses. Hydrogen fuel has been the worst perpetrator; but in the absence of fusion – which is right up there with the Easter bunny and the perpetual motion machine, hydrogen simply ensures zero emissions at the end source (as you rightly point out), but at much greater overall inefficiency.

    The same can be said for electric cars (look – no emissions out of my tailpipe!); rather than the car pumping out CO2, it is our power plants pushing out extra to charge those cars. And of course, ethanol – another fraud McGuinty (and Harper) have pushed on us: cleaner burning fuel, at the expense of a lot more fossil fuels expended to create the ethanol.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see you calling this what it is.


  3. Here we go again! Instead of restoring the Provincial aid for the ongoing operation of transit systems in Ontario the Province should create a corporation that would develop this technology for the world. Lets see now, we could call it the UTDC! Yes, that could stand for Useless Transit Development Crap or Uncle “Transit” Dalton’s Conveyance. Who knows, he could even get a Transit Man of the Year Award.


  4. Steve said:

    “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.”

    Steve there is another way to create hydrogen in a nuclear reactor with out using any of the electrical energy produced. You just let the reactor go into thermal runaway and when it gets to hot the water breaks down in the coolant pipes to form oxygen and hydrogen. If you have designed you pipes (in)correctly, the gas will block the flow of coolant and make it get even hotter. The last (un)successful application of this was at Three Mile Island. I once read an Ontario Hydro report on the Three Mile Island incident and this was one of the many problems that happened. If anyone can get a copy please post it. I will bet that you all thought that Homer Simpson was a character of some one’s wild imagination. He was the operator at Three Mile Island when the problem occurred. The reason the US nuclear Industry hates the Simpson’s is because it is true.


  5. Not that I think Mr. McGuinty’s proposal has any merit, but you could use fuel cells to power GO locomotives. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) are starting to become available and someone might adapt them for locomotives to replace diesel engines at some point in the next 10 years, but they ‘burn’ diesel or other conventional fuels, not hydrogen.

    Please note that I’m not saying that this is the way of the future and I’m not seriously proposing that it’s even an appropriate technology to look at down the road. Just pointing out that not all fuel cells require hydrogen as the fuel source.

    A fuel cell loco would still lack one key efficiency step, it couldn’t return any kinetic energy to the grid whereas with an electric locomotive you can return a lot of kinetic energy of the train into the grid as you slow down. I don’t think we’re at the stage where anyone’s developing a hybrid locomotive that could store the energy on-board, but who knows maybe that’ll be next week’s campaign promise.

    Now diesel-hydraulic hybrid GO buses with fuel cells to run the HVAC, maybe that’s something that might be in the cards sooner.


  6. What is with politicians and doing things the hard way?

    Steve: Ah, but you don’t understand. The purpose of transit is not to move people efficiently, it is to provide lengthy, high-priced development and testing facilities for marginal technologies. It shows just how much transit really means politically when it can be used like this.

    Imagine if the government announced that starting tomorrow all cars sold in Ontario must reach a stringent fuel efficiency target? Imagine if grants to build and expand auto manufacturing were contingent on production of all “green” cars, whatever that means from time to time? Governments mess with transit like this because they can get away with it, because many voters really don’t care one way or the other and want only clear lanes on highways.


  7. Steve, if the provience was serious about this issue, they would look at Calgary’s C Train. It’s light rail service is completely powered from wind mills and has no pollution from both ends of the spectrum. Simple, inexpensive, and awesome. At the risk of sounding like a bum squish, why wasn’t this ever brought up? As Steve said, overhead will work for our needs. Using wind, hydro, solar power, or anything clean I haven’t thought of, we can make this work.

    Steve: There are some important points about the Calgary setup that seem to get lost in the shuffle.

    The Calragry LRT network is not directly powered by the turbines. The premise is that the amount of power consumed by the C-train is equal to the power output, over a year, of the wind farm. The power from the farm goes into the grid. It is technically impossible to deliver power from a specific source to a specific user unless they have a direct connection, and more to the point, the C-train needs to run even when the wind farm is becalmed.

    The cost of setting up the wind farm is borne by Calgary Transit, and they are at a point where their cost of production is below that of power from the commercial hydro grid. This is, essentially, an argument for investment in the technology. In the early years of any new facility, capital costs will dominate, and the cost of power (including amortized capital) may be higher than average. However, as the price of power from other sources rises, the cost of wind power drops, relatively speaking.

    Next, the background information on Calgary’s system takes a bit to find. There are many sites that tout this scheme, but few with hard numbers. According to one site, the wind farm in Alberta consists of 12 turbines collectively producing 1.3MWh of power, enough to power the entire C-train system. By contrast, Toronto Hydro claims that its single turbine produces 1.4MWh over the course of a year.

    References to Calgary go back to 2001 and tend to all cite the same numbers without actually saying how much power the C-train consumes.


  8. I have read in the past about plans to use waste heat from a nuke plant to produce hydrogen, if something like this could work then it may make fuel cells a more useful from of power for vehicles,

    But hydrogen powered go trains? Do not waste our money to develop technology that no one will buy and will provide no benefit (sound familiar?).

    Do we have the technology to build an electric powered bi-level Go train car with a pantograph mounted on top? Can these cars be connected to form a train? Yes? Well then, Problem Solved!


  9. Another politician struck by the green energy silver bullet. The Mayor of Vancouver was hit by one of these and it was decreed that Translink buy CNG buses that they, or anyone else didn’t want. Instead of an order of “clean” diesel buses, they got 3/4 as many CNG buses that probably won’t last as long, and require dedicated facilities. And they still had to make up the shortfall in the number of buses ordered.

    Ballard is still telling anyone who cares that the cost-effective hydrogen bus is “just around the corner”….

    Somebody has to stop this one dead cold before billions are spent and a similar boondoggle happens with GO. Let’s see, how many millions for a hydrogen fuel facility, for say, the Stouffville line, the cost of freight to get the hydrogen there, the cost of actually producing the hydrogen (nuclear or coal-fired), and then the cost of having a handful of specialized locomotives or cars which would probably be enough to buy a whole fleet of electric locomotives for the rest of the system. But in political logic, it’s all good! Let’s stick with something realistic!


  10. Amazing. How about we re-invent the wheel (or locomotive) to get GO trains running on hydrogen, spending billions on potentially dead-end R&D in the process, instead of just electrifying lines and upgrading service? I mean, have these people ever seen what a proper regional rail network, a la the systems in many German cities, looks like? Let’s work on the basic steps of getting closer to that before touting miracle fuels.


  11. Even if the technology to drive a GO train was not changed from what it is today— it still is better for the air we breath then all the cars on the road it has replaced right?

    That is my view and less evil is the way to go as far as I am concerned.

    Just like an auto driver that chooses to carpool with 3 of his or her friends is still reducing emissions from the cars that were replaced- the fuel usage does go up as the car gets heavier but it is still better then the 4 cars on the road together.

    If we all drove perfect green vehicles as single occupant vehicles then we have the same gridlock issues.

    Reduce Cars– Increase Transit use.

    Pretty Simple, Vote for me for Premier !


  12. A hydrogen-fuelled train is not a lunacy. Some information can be found here:


    Apparently, a conversion to hydrogen power might be preferable to electrification in two circumstances:

    For minor / infrequently used rail lines, as one saves on the cost of electric wires and substations.
    For lines in dense urban areas, where the electric wires and poles do not look nice and take away space.

    However, hydrogen rail does not look like a great choice for GO Transit:

    Lines are used heavily and hence the cost of electrification is less significant compared to benefits;
    Lines are well separated from the rest of urban landscape, so the wires would not be a big deal;
    And most importantly, the electric rail is known for over 50 years, while the hydrogen rail is still in design.

    We should not be spending public transit dollars on technology that might or might not work, let the private capital work that out first.

    Steve: The first of the two linked papers above has a huge amount of detail on the subject and will prove interesting reading for anyone wanting details of all facets of railway propulsion and fuel cell technology. One important caveat here: The “train” in question is generally a generously sized LRV on a par with the RDC units that once plied the CN/Via routes in southern Ontario. It is not a 10-car GO train with 2,000 passengers and a locomotive.

    As Michael says above, this technology, once it even becomes feasible, is much better suited to locations where the service demand (passenger loads, frequency of service) is low than to major corridors. Clearly, many organizations are working on this technology, but it is not going to be available on a commercial scale for at least a decade.


  13. According an article in the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal, it sounds like this has become a major public commitment by McGuinty…

    “While still in its preliminary stages, McGuinty said the hydrogen train is exactly the type of initiative envisioned when the government created the $650-million Next Generation Jobs Fund which the Liberals have pledged to expand by another $500 million after the Oct. 10 provincial election.

    ‘It‘s our goal to get a prototype on the rails here in Ontario within three years of the project launch,’ McGuinty told a small audience of plant workers.”

    Let’s just hope this is incremental to the expanison/electrification proposals outlined in “MoveOntario”, and not at the expense of it.


  14. An overhead catenary single phase 60 cycle AC system around 11,000 to 25,000 volts would work fine for GO Transit and everything (locomotives, MU cars, the infrastructure equipment) is all available off the shelf and is an established, proven technology.

    Is this the reason why we can’t have a traditional electrification of the lakeshore line, and go down the avenue of sillyness with the hydrogen business?

    With the new fleet of diesel locomotives being built now for use on most of the GO system, it’s probably going to be the lakeshore electrification that becomes the sacrifical victim to create a showcase line for the hydrogen technology, if it ever materializes, just like the way the Scarborough RT got co-opted to show of ICTS back in the 80s.

    McGuinty’s really hurting his credibility badly by making such overtly outrageous promises.


  15. If McGuinty wants hydrogen powered commuter cars – build them for Ottawa. If it goes wrong, the consequences are on his electoral front door. I wonder what CN/CP think of massive hydrogen storage facilities beside their rail lines…


  16. It’s frustrating to see such relatively ill-advised and wrong moves for energy and transit policy when we’re managing to ignore one basic threat to the effective working of the Lakeshore West line, the moving of the tracks it runs on for the Front St. Extension proposal, which will impair that service for a significant time if the road goes ahead. Trying to get traction on this issue and suggesting maybe the $60M budgetted for track-moving would be better spent on the true congestion fighters like more GO trains is, well, uphill.


  17. As I understand it, there is significant inefficiency when electricity is used to make hydrogen and then hydrogen is used to make propulsion power. It is far more efficient to use the electricity directly. In addition, I would concur with the comments above, that centre around the essential problem that our society consumes too much energy. The resolution to this problem is definitely not to discover or invent substitute “GREEN” power sources which we would continue to waste.

    However, the reason I did to decide to contribute to the discussion is because there is one way that perhaps hydrogen could make a contribution. Wind is a fairly benign source of power, but is unreliable. Sometimes the wind blows and sometimes it doesn’t. These periods do not always coincide with the times when power is needed and the backup/redundancy requirements for a wind system can be very costly. This is where hydrogen could play a role – as a storage medium for energy. When there is more wind than power demand. excess electricity could be used to generate hydrogen. When the wind provides less power than the demand requires, the stored hydrogen could be used to run an electrical generator. This would still entail a loss of efficiency in the conversion to hydrogen and reconversion to electricity, but the relatively benign nature of the source and the savings in alternate backup requirements might make this feasible. (Wind is not totally benign. It takes resources and energy to make the turbine in the first place, there are issues with noise (vibration) and windmills kill birds.)


  18. While I agree that the “hydrogen Economy” is a fantasy, the reasons are more financial than technical. Nuclear plants do produce CO2 free energy and could be used to replenish fuel cells. The problem is the cost of developing nuclear plants.


  19. Nuclear Power is definitely not CO2 free if we look at its whole life cycle. The ore needs to be mined, refined and transported – all activities that create CO2 and have other negative environmental impacts. Afterwards, the storage and transport of the deadly poisonous waste requires further CO2 expenditures. It has been estimated by some that the net CO2 effect of nuclear power is roughly the same as a natural gas generator. Others suggest, however, that (relatively) clean natural gas should not be used up generating electricity if we continue to waste electrical power. The bottom line for this whole debate is that from all sources, we continue to use too much energy in our affluent and wasteful society. It is not sustainable in the long run and the time to start making changes is now. (Meanwhile, in Toronto and Ontario two levels of government continue to bicker while actual increased demand for energy saving public transit remains unmet.)


  20. A much better idea would be for McGuinty to try a combination of Mag Lev and Linear Induction. This would, of course, require separate right of way so Dalton could plan a bypass GO line. As a proto-type, he could set up a TTC line from Kipling Station to the airport. Then, even if the Mag lev part seems impractical he could still go with Linear induction (on Standard guage tracks of course). And best of all this wouldn’t be a leap into the dark. We already have experience with this entire procedure.

    Steve: You are far too cynical, but of course swan boats up the Etobicoke Creek are the real answer anyhow.


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