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Hydrail at Davos: the “Hydrogen Council” on-track

by guest blogger, Stan Thompson

Media covering the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week missed one of the biggest stories there.  The new Hydrogen Council announced at the Forum included Alstom Transport, the Paris-based train builder that’s sold 40-50 hydrail trains to four German states. Last year the German Federal Ministry of Transport published an Ernst and Young study addressing the possibility of replacing all the nation’s railway diesels with hydrail.

Hydrail is the electrification of trams, trains and locomotives using onboard hydrogen and fuel cells, eliminating the need for either overhead power or onboard carbon fuel.

News coverage of the Davos Economic Forum  made much of the car and and gas giants in the Hydrogen Council but seemed, in silence, to be saying of Alstom, “What are those guys doing here?”

Those guys are teaching the world to speak hydrail.  If the media missed the point, the transportation and energy players probably did not.

In Alstom Transport’s CEO, Henri Poupard-Lafarge, Toyota, Honda, Daimler, BMW and Hyundai have a potent ally in the war to end the hydrogen media myths that have muddied the market.

More than half a century before there were Stanley, White and Doble steam cars, there were steam trains. A half-century before there were diesel pumps at convenience stores there was the diesel locomotive.

When steam cars came along, they used a well-known technology. It’s operation and benefits were understood and—even though safety valves could stick and steamboats and locomotives did explode now and then—there was no Hindenburg “Oh, the humanity!” media myth to thwart “steamer” sales.

By 1975, train passengers were few…but plenty of consumers were hungry for diesel cars.

Around 1999, Dr. Alistair Miller (of what’s now Canadian Nuclear Laboratories) wrote a paper logically weighing the various ways hydrogen could power transportation. Trains and boats are easiest; cars and planes are hardest—miniaturization, fueling ubiquity and all the tangles of retailing get in the way.

With Alstom stringing hydrail trains across Germany beginning this December, and with Green-leaning early adopters queueing-up to ride them, car giants are going to find it a whole lot easier to snag H2 buyers.

The sad thing is that if the media had not buried the hydrail story for a decade or so, hydrogen cars could already be commonplace today.

The Leaf and the Tesla might not have found a wide enough niche to nuzzle into the game. It’s even just barely possible that—in a decade or so—Alstom’s hydrail debut at Davos could accidentally nudge the lithe lithium Leafs and the trendy torquey Teslas off the playing field and into the museum alongside the lead-acid battery powered Detroits and Bakers and the Stanley Steamers of yore.

Steamers took about as long to start as electrics take to charge. Consumers can get fidgety.

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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