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BBC Advert For Hydrogen Trains

June 21, 2019

By Paul Homewood


I spotted this video on BBC News yesterday:



Hydrogen-powered trains are arguably the greenest trains out there.

"Mini power stations on wheels", is how Alex Burrows from the University of Birmingham describes them.

He is the project director for the ‘Hydroflex’ train which was showcased at an event in the West Midlands.

Unlike diesel trains, hydrogen-powered trains do not emit harmful gases, instead using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat.

It is "a fully green fuel", says Helen Simpson from rail rolling stock company Porterbrook, which created the Hydroflex in partnership with Birmingham University’s centre for Railway Research.

But hydrogen trains are still incredibly rare.

The only two in active service in the entire world are in Germany.

Britain is looking to become one of the next countries to start running them.

And the ‘Hydroflex’ is a tester train where the technology is being trialled.

The hydrogen tanks, the fuel cell and the batteries sit inside a carriage where passengers would normally sit.

In future commercial models that equipment will have to be stored away above and beneath the train.

So why is this all happening now?

A quarter of the UK’s trains run solely off diesel.

The government wants them all gone by 2040.

"The carbon writing is on the wall", says Mike Muldoon from French train manufacturer Alstom, the company behind Germany’s hydrogen trains.

He argues the rail sector has to get greener "if we are going to convince more people to shift from car to train."

But until the day when hydrogen trains are ferrying passengers around the UK, diesel-powered trains are a necessity.

That is because more than two thirds of our rail lines do not have overhead cabling which electric trains need to run.

So trains are bi-mode, which means they can run off electricity, where there are overhead cables, and off diesel the rest of the time.

But bi-mode trains are, in environmental terms, far from perfect.

And electrifying rail lines does not come cheaply for the government.

Regional routes which carry relatively few passengers are unlikely to be electrified soon.

And that is where hydrogen trains come in.

The hope is that they will be carrying passengers in the UK in two years.


Nowhere in the story does the BBC explain to viewers where the hydrogen comes from, instead giving the impression that it is somehow plucked out of the air.

Basically there are only two ways:

  • Electrolysis, which is a small scale and highly expensive of using electricity to produce hydrogen. To then use this hydrogen to produce electricity must be the height of illogicality.
  • Steam reforming, which uses natural gas in a process which still produces carbon dioxide.

Both methods will add hugely to the running costs of trains, and both rely heavily on fossil fuels in the first place.


The BBC mention Germany, where interestingly the new Datteln 4 coal power station is due to open next year. Rated at 1.1 GW, a third of Datteln’s power will be fed directly into the Deutsche Bahn grid:

The 50Hz power generated by the plant will be converted into 16.7Hz, which is ideal for the train system, by a traction current converter facility to be constructed along the power station. The converted energy will be fed to Deutsche Bahn’s 110kV high-voltage grid.


So while British trains will apparently be running on unicorn farts, the German counterparts will still be relying on good old coal!

  1. Ken Pollock permalink
    June 21, 2019 2:35 pm

    Paul, the item on this topic on the Today programme (20th June?) indicated that the source of the energy originally could be waste plastic. This is converted in small plants scattered around the country and produces hydrogen that can then be loaded on to cars or trains more quickly than recharging batteries, as in your Tesla.
    Naturally there was no question of an energy balance or overall efficiency, and I guess no-one involved had ever heard of the second law of thermodynamics, but, hey ho, it’s only the BBC…
    How about Roger Harrabin muddling up energy and electricity on the R4 Today programme this morning? He claims it was clear, as he mentioned the National Grid, but one was left with the impression that the two are the same, and that >50% generation by renewables was really significant, never mind it was 50% of 20%, the portion of our energy use that is electricity!

    • June 21, 2019 3:36 pm

      I heard that item, and I got the impression that Tim Yeo was spinning it a tad in the direction that reflected his personal interest in energy from waste :/

    • June 21, 2019 3:39 pm

      RE: Harrabin and the “renewables overtaking fossil fuels” story, although it was clearly relating solely to electricity, the BBC’s web article has this as its top line:

      “For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, Britain is obtaining more power from zero-carbon sources than fossil fuels.”

      This is obviously flat-out wrong.

      • Ken Pollock permalink
        June 21, 2019 5:15 pm

        Roger Harrabin has, in our email exchange, sought to justify his script – which he sent me. He then accused me of “fastidiousness”, when I requested that he should be more concerned with accuracy. The website article demonstrates that the BBC is ignorant and careless. I say that is tragic, as a former BBC producer of 22 years, and now BBC pensioner!

      • June 21, 2019 7:21 pm

        Ken my impression is that harra isn’t a journalist
        but rather a tele-evangelist for GreenDream Religion
        ..preaching that great doom happens if we don’t pay onto the collecting plate.
        ..Hence his scripts not being about actual accuracy & real world maths.

      • Phoenix44 permalink
        June 22, 2019 10:14 am

        And all the fossil fuel plants will be still be burning fossil fuels but pointlessly as they won’t be converting that heat into electricity. So it’s doubly false in terms of actual emissions.

    • Curious George permalink
      June 21, 2019 4:05 pm

      “The source of the energy originally could be waste plastic.” Could be. Until then, it will be oil. Business as usual.

  2. chaswarnertoo permalink
    June 21, 2019 2:41 pm

    What’s wrong with burning the LPG in the train?

    • June 21, 2019 4:56 pm

      No CO2 capture (CCS). The cost of hydrogen production with CCS will have to be paid by the passengers in the end., if they ever get it to work on an industrial scale that is.

      • Phil permalink
        June 22, 2019 9:55 am

        I initially misread your comment as:

        “The cost of hydrogen will have to be paid by the passengers in the end, of they ever get to work…”

  3. June 21, 2019 2:49 pm

    Wow hydrogen trains. I wonder if they will blow up like the Hindenburg? Hydrogen is a very volatile fuel source and very explosive.

    • June 21, 2019 3:10 pm

      Hindenburg didn’t blow up – it caught fire.

      • June 21, 2019 7:35 pm

        AFAIK the hydrogen left the science and it was the aluminium frame that did the burning.
        Aluminium’s embedded energy means it’s a fuel.

      • June 22, 2019 11:13 am

        typo : the hydrogen left the scene

    • Saighdear permalink
      June 21, 2019 3:16 pm

      Car “Blewup” or OK, caught fire, at a filling station in Scandinavia this past week. All Hydrogen Car sales have been suspended. No mention of that in the uk MSM

    • Bruce of Newcastle permalink
      June 22, 2019 12:50 am

      MI5 might have to put on more staff if trains full of very explosive gas are trundling all over the country every day. They’d be irresistible targets.

  4. June 21, 2019 2:56 pm

    This is probably a parrot version of a press release full of hype and sparse on facts. Typical lazy journalism with an agenda, parasitical on the the BBC reputation now very dubious on climate matters.

    Loads of CO2 to produce the hydrogen and who cares?

  5. June 21, 2019 3:12 pm

    June 15:
    A hydrogen fueling station fire in Norway has left fuel-cell cars nowhere to charge A hydrogen fueling station explosion earlier this week in Norway, one the world’s most electrified countries in transport is worrying.

    On Monday, a hydrogen refueling station located in Bærum, a suburb of Norway’s capital Oslo exploded around 5:40 pm local time. The fire was contained within three hours,

  6. Harry Passfield permalink
    June 21, 2019 4:15 pm

    So railway engine development has gone from coal/steam – diesel/electric – gas or coal/hydrogen/electric. The only bit that’s green in that evolution are the idiot journalists who believe it’s progress no matter what the cost to the paying public.

  7. Joe Public permalink
    June 21, 2019 5:22 pm

    So Germany’s ‘Hydrogen’ train is powered by some of the dirtiest lignite & hard-coal generated electricity in western Europe, with a helping hand from cleaner gas.

    In 2018, 50% of Germany’s electricity was FF generated.

    Poor Harrabin.

    • Ian Youles permalink
      June 24, 2019 3:33 am

      I hope your ‘dirtiest’ is of the sarcastic nature.

  8. jack broughton permalink
    June 21, 2019 5:44 pm

    Hydrogen is the only apparent answer to the mad determination to be carbon free in heating and transport. The IET have just released their report “Transitioning to Hydrogen” which is quite a good technical report on the status of hydrogen but neglects to delve into the economics of replacing all heating with hydrogen. They merrily note that the UK will need 300TWh of hydrogen for heating to be mainly made from natural gas with CCS and off-peak electricity in magic plant that does not exist at the scale needed.

    Maybe if they caught some of the flying-pigs and put them with the unicorns our problems would be solved, but they do not go that far in solving the how-to question. The BBC etc will love the report, expect to hear more.

    • June 21, 2019 7:49 pm

      Our local paper used the headline
      \\ leading engineers say that hydrogen can safely be used to replace natural gas in the country’s gas grid //
      they quote IET
      they mention no cost

      • Graeme No.3 permalink
        June 22, 2019 12:13 am

        The reply would be “since the cheapest hydrogen comes from natural gas, why switch to get higher heating bills and NIL reduction in emissions”. You could pad it out bit by asking the cost of replacing pipes (as hydrogen has lower density), meters, burners/heaters.

  9. Gamecock permalink
    June 21, 2019 6:54 pm

    ‘He argues the rail sector has to get greener “if we are going to convince more people to shift from car to train.”‘

    Yeah, people are just waiting for trains to get greener. Then they’ll give up everything.

    • Chaswarnertoo permalink
      June 22, 2019 6:53 pm

      Yep. I use a 6 litre V8 because trains aren’t ‘green’ enough. Have we reached peak moron yet?

  10. June 21, 2019 7:52 pm

    I reckon for 70% of UK people rail is not a practical mode of transport
    I’d have to cycle 6 miles to an open station and the only places I can go to is Cleethorpes
    or Doncaster & beyond

    • June 21, 2019 8:32 pm

      Dead right, Stew

      I live 10 miles out of Sheffield, where I would have to catch a train

      If I drove in, I would have to pay a fortune to park. If I went by bus, it would take an hour.

      It is laughable that the govy wants to spend £50bn+ on HS2, so we can get to Birmingham 20 minutes quicker. Yet are happy to see us waste several hours a week travelling by oublic transport rather than cars

      • Up2snuff permalink
        June 22, 2019 5:37 pm

        And I seem to recall millionaire George Osborne (if he wasn’t then, he is now after editing the London Evening Standard for a couple of years) complaining that trains were ‘rich man’s travel’ and he wasn’t even paying for his ticket when he said that, we were!

        Things have not improved, rail fares-wise, since Osborne left Parliament.

  11. Athelstan. permalink
    June 21, 2019 9:05 pm

    The wimin run al beeb, they were brought up on Harry Potter and went sociology, economics and whatevah at uni, where nothing is taught about sciencey stuff.
    The wimin ordain it and it will happen and boo hoo to all those nastry right wing naysayers – anything but anything is possible if you tax the bejabbers out of people – that’s what the Marxists do, dahling! More couscous and pass the herbal tea and skunk luv.

    Now, mrs maybot and the sisters, WILL hear no more of this nonsense – zero carbon is what we’re all going to have to achieve, whether you like it or not – it’s been decided and all the luvvies say so – too, just ask Emma thompson and leonardo.

    Coming soon, hell will be wrought and as the wimin go all voldemort on you – the UK taxpayers.

    Hydrogen trains and all, money no object, it’s investment in our lack of futures.

    • Bertie permalink
      June 22, 2019 6:34 am

      Perhaps they could all go back to Venus and we could live happily on Mars!

      • Athelstan. permalink
        June 22, 2019 10:38 am

        I luv ’em, I want girls to be girls, ladies whom are beautiful on the inside, who are passionate, caring but with brains, I just don’t want the cultural Marxist trustafarian and political profligates, equality quota numbskulls, the green archpriestesses of the misandry running the country and very unfortunately: that’s what we’ve got.

    • Peter Alexander Gillon permalink
      July 1, 2019 9:34 am

      I like couscous herbal tea and women but not keen on skunk

  12. Stuart Brown permalink
    June 21, 2019 10:10 pm

    ‘And the ‘Hydroflex’ is a tester train where the technology is being trialled.

    The hydrogen tanks, the fuel cell and the batteries sit inside a carriage where passengers would normally sit. ‘

    Now that did make me laugh. A bit like electric aircraft, this would be brilliant if there was any room for passengers! What is this thing with hydrogen?

    Why not use methane to fuel the train if the objective is to reduce the carbon dioxide produced? It’s easier to power a train from that than hydrogen, surely. And as others have pointed out, the hydrogen likely comes from methane reforming in the first place at an energetic loss.

    “Mini power stations on wheels” they are not. They don’t burn fuel. A diesel-electric train actually is a ‘mini power station’. As an energy carrier – it’s not a fuel – hydrogen just seems economically and technically bonkers to me, and I wish I had the time and intellect to prove it to myself. Why not use excess solar/wind/nuclear electricity to make diesel or methane (as an energy carrier) from the CO2 from brewing beer or whatever daft idea seems to make more sense than just burning dug-up real fuel diesel in the first place?

    We have massive existing infrastructures for providing electricity, methane, gasoline and diesel wherever they are needed. Which one would a sensible engineer pick to roll out to reduce the carbon footprint of trains before re-engineering them to burn hydrogen? I think I’d even bet on a ‘battery bunker to make an EV’ train in front of this daft idea. Charge while they are on electrified stretches of track to carry them beyond those areas and maybe just electrify stations for a quick boost while the train is stood there. Could work with existing ‘bi-mode’ engines. Would that make more economic sense than just electrifying more track?

    • Up2snuff permalink
      June 22, 2019 5:43 pm

      Stuart, excellent idea.

      I would have thought using methane would be a good thing because as such it is a far worse Global Warming gas than CO2, so we are told, those who do not wish to go vegan can carry on eating cow and drinking their milk, and the cows can help keep the trains running.

      Now, if the cows could also get the trains to run on time ….

      I can picture it now: “Sorry, Mr Grayling, but you are now redundant.”

  13. dearieme permalink
    June 21, 2019 10:15 pm

    I have taken to telling greenies that the problem with a hydrogen economy is all the fracking that would be necessary to develop the hydrogen wells. Do try it!

  14. Gamecock permalink
    June 21, 2019 10:18 pm

    ‘Unlike diesel trains, hydrogen-powered trains do not emit harmful gases, instead using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat.’

    Hmmm . . . an assertion not in evidence. What harmful gases do diesels emit?

    Diesel trains use oil and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat. What a coincidence!

    • Duker permalink
      June 22, 2019 1:04 am

      Harmful in this context means the evil CO2, which of course all people emit when they breathe

  15. swan101 permalink
    June 21, 2019 10:58 pm

    Reblogged this on UPPER SONACHAN WIND FARM.

  16. June 21, 2019 11:08 pm

    How many places won’t let trucks or cars go through tunnels if they contain any form of pressurized flammable gas because of safety concerns. How many train lines never go through tunnels or go underground as they go through a city. This seems like a solution that would only be suitable on rural routes where freight is hauled.

    • Willie Bone, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland.. permalink
      June 22, 2019 1:25 pm

      Sean, Hydrogen traction will not be powerful enough to work most rail freight flows in the UK! The exception being light palletised goods carried on hydrogen multiple units, designed for carrying goods rather than passengers! 😉

  17. Gary Kerkin permalink
    June 22, 2019 12:17 am

    And not a mention of the most important green house gas—water.

    • Fred Joyce permalink
      June 22, 2019 7:04 am

      .and never mentioned in any greenhouse gas analysis because it is infinitely variable and measurements are always taken on a dry gas basis

  18. Willie Bone, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland permalink
    June 22, 2019 6:13 am

    The BBC in the UK don’t advertise, the corporation does reflect topical issues at home and abroad!
    The UK should adopt a transport policy for its railway network by electrifying all main arteries, along with secondary (diversionary) routes and what remains of suburban area routes! Battery hybrid power should be adopted for lighter traffic routes, beyond the overhead wires or electric 3rd rail!
    Electric traction can generate more than double the horse power of its counterpart diesel and hydrogen powered trains. Also, hydrogen adopted routes will never be able to haul heavy freight, including minerals, agreggates or even container traffic because hydrogen traction will be underpowered!
    The West Highland Line and Far North Lines in Scotland are going to face a future challenge without diesel traction, part electrification and battery hybrid power could be the long term solution!

  19. June 22, 2019 8:31 am

    Reblogged this on Climate- Science.

  20. Amanda Cheadle permalink
    June 22, 2019 10:08 am

    Electrolysis could be done using wind or solar power.

    • June 22, 2019 11:00 am

      Electrolysis is a very expensive and essentially small, scale operation.

      As others have said, why not simply electrify the trains anyway?

      • Up2snuff permalink
        June 22, 2019 6:02 pm

        Paul, the problem now is the massive CO2 needed to create the metal and wiring to do that. If, if we are going for Net Zero by 2050 then you will have to plant an awful lot of trees before then just to put in the new rail infrastructure.

        That’s before you build the new trains. How much CO2 will those manufactures create?

        Someone clever on here with the knowledge of the industrial processes required can probably have a stab at doing some sums. I can’t, it’s beyond me. Making a wild guess, I reckon we would have to reforest the UK to a level not seen for three or four millennia. The population of the UK will possibly have to live on the beach, sea level rise or no, standing more or less shoulder to shoulder.

        Then there would be the question of offsetting the CO2 for generating the electricity to run the trains, with their leaves (and small trees, no doubt, “Thank you, birds.”) once a year, on the lines.

        Forget cycling or driving to the station to catch trains. Think you will need machetes and weeks to march there.

        Our caretaker Prime Minister is putting a lot of faith in carbon capture.

    • dennisambler permalink
      June 22, 2019 11:26 am

      There won’t be any spare, as they will be chonking away just to keep the lights on. Where is the Hydrogen going to be stored? I bet no-one will invoke the Precautionary Principle.

  21. John, UK permalink
    June 22, 2019 10:47 am

    Bi-modes mean you are lugging around the heavy diesel engines every mile you are under the wires hence less efficient and poorer acceleration also.
    I have yet to be convinced of the safety of hydrogen trains, whenever I have seen the question raised the answer seems to be on the lines of “Oh in the States they tested the hydrogen tanks by firing high-velocity bullets at them and they passed the test.”.
    Colour me unconvinced, I would like to see a test on a unit with the tanks underfloor (as is the current suggestion for the UK loading gauge) where the unit runs around for a couple of hours so all the underfloor elements that will heat up have reached a normal operating temperature, then some metal debris placed on the track so as to rip the bottom out of the tank, and then see what happens. This is a much more realistic scenario in the Uk rail environment and has happened more than once to diesel units.

    • Up2snuff permalink
      June 22, 2019 6:08 pm

      What about low velocity bullets, John, the sort of thing Pathan tribesmen used to fire at, into and through armoured Russian helicopters, using Victorian rifles? More like the scenario in your second paragraph.

      Think I’m with you in the (Very Much) Unconvinced Department.

  22. dearieme permalink
    June 22, 2019 11:59 am

    Why has nobody posted a photo of that recent fire at the hydrogen refuelling station in Norway? Poor show, chaps.

  23. mkelly permalink
    June 22, 2019 5:09 pm

    So they want to trade a gas, CO2, that has no effect for a gas, WV, that does. Have none of them ever heard of the heat index caused by the increase in relative humidity?

  24. Rupert Wyndham permalink
    June 23, 2019 7:19 am

    There is another fundamental illogicality, which seems to have been ignored/overlooked. H2O is a greenhouse gas. It is a GHG, moreover, which is (a) far more virulent in that regard than CO2. It is also far more prevalent in the atmosphere than CO2 – approx 4% as against less than 1/25th of a single percent.

    If you are concerned about the effects of GHGs on climate, how precisely does it anyway help to replace CO2 with H2O?

  25. June 23, 2019 4:57 pm

    You are right about the methods of hydrogen generation, and the fact that it is likely to lead to a cost increase at the current time, however there is a need to decarbonise transport and hydrogen is one pathway technology to achieving this for trains.

    For transport to reduce its carbon footprint the energy needs to come from a greater share of renewable energy. That then needs to be delivered by overhead power lines or stored in batteries, synthetic fuel (e-diesel) or hydrogen.

    Is the UK grid currently largely fossil fuelled? Yes. Will it reduce carbon emissions going forward? There are certainly plans being delivered to improve it at a growing rate in the future. We need to develop, test and mature the technology now to enable us to realise the benefit. No technology is at its most cost effective while it is being matured.

    Plus the Deutsche Bahn grid is reportedly only 18% power from coal, with 66% coming from nuclear and renewables. Sure – they have some dirty power sources, but they have more clean ones. Again, we are going through a period of change.

  26. Pancho Plail permalink
    June 23, 2019 8:11 pm

    Inside my Sunday Telegraph today was yet another one of those cruise brochures, only this one was different. It proudly proclaimed “The World’s first Hybrid Powered Expedition Cruise Ships”. Intrigued, I combed the brochure for an explanation, but no, it was apparently a marketing thing to hook environmentalists into their very expensive polar cruises.
    So I looked on-line for an explanation. The first phase will enable battery-only cruising for a whole half an hour so I presume it will be a large constant speed diesel motor driving a genny to power an electric motor and a set of batteries. Same principle, I suppose, as diesel-electric locomotives. The second phase will have bigger batteries.
    Can’t see any opportunity for regeneration, and plugging it to the mains is obviously out of the question.
    The claim is that there is a saving of 20% on fuel, but it is not clear whether this takes into account additional costs for extra drive components and the weight of the battery.
    Does anybody know any more about the total costs of operation of these?
    I suspect only Norway would put it into production.

    • Ken Pollock permalink
      June 24, 2019 6:30 pm

      Pancho, I saw something similar and went through the same process. What a cynical con to trap the gullible…I hope they don’t succeed, but you can never tell with the general public and there is enough foolishness talked, it might even work, as a marketing ploy.

  27. Ivan permalink
    June 24, 2019 3:32 pm

    Firing bullets at a hydrogen tank is a silly test. Escaping direct to the atmosphere, you don’t get an explosive mixture forming. How you get a big explosion is when it escapes to a confined air-filled space, like a train cabin, or the room of a building, where a hydrogen/air mixture can form and then explode. May happen in just a few seconds if you get a high rate of escape.

    So an underfloor hydrogen store sounds like a risk. Maybe if there is a sufficient very well vented air gap, that could never become blocked, between the hydrogen tank and the cabin floor the chance of it escaping in quantity into the cabin becomes neglible, even in a collision.

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