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Hydrail: Putting the Car Before the (Iron) Horse

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

Perhaps the single greatest impediment to the advent of the hydrogen economy has been the media-led insistence that hydrogen fuel cell technology is an automotive design experiment that has not yet been made to work. The ubiquity issue—the controlling obstacle unique to the car application—is never examined. Mention hydrogen and people inevitably assume that you’re talking about cars.

Steam technology was applied to railroads in the 1830s but wasn’t commercialized in automobiles until nearly 1900—seventy years after rail. Similarly, diesel was introduced to railroading about 1925 but—excepting the few Cummins cars produced in 1934 and the early Mercedes diesels in Germany in the mid-1930s—diesel cars, supported at the pump island, did not appear for another fifty years or so after diesel rail.

Why, then, do newsrooms insist that hydrogen cars should either emerge on the scene out of nothing, like some quantum commercial prodigy, or else be written-off as a failed experiment?

If steam took 70 years to evolve from the rail to the road and diesel took 50 years, why is the non-technical press so bent upon “putting the car before the iron horse” in the case of hydrogen?

This question, I concede, is somewhat rhetorical. In the 1830’s (with apologies to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot) there was not yet a horseless paradigm to pique public interest in personal steam vehicles. By the mid-1920s, the reverse was true; cars were well past the innovation stage and barreling through the integration stage. That is, the state-of-the-art was advancing fast, having standardized on the energy density advantages of gasoline, with its ready domestic availability. Expensive, heavy-engined diesel cars were a “why bother” technology until the 1970s Arab Oil Embargo made diesel’s superior fuel range a design factor that could no longer be ignored. The minute diesel dispensing pumps became relevant, they popped up like mushrooms. Hydrogen will do the same.

But all that would happen very much sooner if hydrogen, like steam and diesel, were first made familiar to the public as a rail technology. Easier-to-implement hydrail would hasten the advent of hydrogen cars if its imminent emergence were not buried by the general press. Hydrail is a natural for compact, closed rail systems like streetcar lines, industrial plant yards and, especially, in maritime switching yards, where it complements hydrogen ferries and work boats. Hydrogen needs this kind of showcase to advance.

South African journalist Rowan Watt-Pringle has just broken ranks and disclosed present-day hydrail in all its progress and promise. Let’s hope the path he’s just refreshed is kept open for a while!

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I’m a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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  1. My first reaction is that cars should come before rail because there are so many of them polluting away. But hey, bring on hydrail, and maybe we’ll use that instead of cars. It’s good both ways.

  2. Hi, Gaylene!

    Re, the cars versus hydrail sequence, the locomotive preceded the Stanley Steamer, Doble and White steam cars by about 75 years. The 1925 GE/ALCO/Ingersoll-Rand preceded fuel-anywhere diesel cars by 50 years. Cars need to function everywhere under the control of any driver. Trains are run on closed routes by highly trained specialists, a much easier system in which to innovate though slower to complete due to equipment life and capital utilization realities.

    Computer and other chips are much more societally valuable than wired circuit boards, but still wired boards came long before chips. Trying to push cars ahead of trains based on importance just delays the advent of both.

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