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China: Choosing hydrail?

by Guest Blogger Stan Thompson

A version of this post originally appeared January 12, 2014, in my Mooresville [NC] Tribune newspaper column.

Last month, when China’s Jade Rabbit lunar explorer touched down on the moon, it may have given the world a hint about that country’s railroad vision. As the pundits observed, China didn’t replicate the American Apollo project; rather, they flew it into the 21st century.

Now watch: I’m predicting they’ll do the same with railway technology, embracing hydrail deployment with a will.

Annually, the Mooresville South Iredell Chamber of Commerce, the University of North Carolina at Boone and colleagues around the world convene a conference of the universities, governments and companies working on “hydrail” — hydrogen fuel cell railway propulsion. Think of hydrail as wireless, zero-carbon electric trains replacing diesels.

Reducing air pollution and dependence on imported energy is a life-and-death issue in China. And, for prohibitive cost reasons, in China (and everywhere else) few rail lines beyond those already electrified will be powered by overhead wires. Hydrail lets future electric trains “go wireless.”

Last spring, two professors from China’s railway university—Dr. CHEN Weirong and Dr. LIU Zhixiang—demonstrated that country’s first hydrail locomotive, “Blue Sky.” It was named “Blue Sky” exactly because China’s skies have become anything but blue…environmental casualties of the country’s  appearance in the front ranks of industrialized nations. Creating an emissions-free locomotive is one of China’s steps toward reversing this unhappy side-effect of economic success.

While the US is beginning to replace dirty diesel trains with less dirty natural gas upgrades, China is positioned to power rail traction with wind, hydroelectricity and solar energy, converted to hydrogen and carried onboard at a fraction of the cost of overhead wires.

That’s what their “Blue Sky” project is about.

The university which their “Blue Sky” hydrail locomotive calls home originated in 1896 during the Qing Dynasty reign of Emperor Guāngxù as the Imperial Chinese Railway College. It’s now known as Southwest Jiaotong University—or just “SWJTU” to friends.

Last year Mooresville, NC, and SWJTU became friends.

SWJTU Professors CHEN and LIU were introduced to Mooresville and our Appalachian State University colleagues by Research and Education Liaison Officer Anqi Wang at the University of Birmingham, UK, where our 7th International Hydrail Conference was held in 2012. U. Birmingham is in talks with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that could spark the first hydrail engineering program in North or South America.

Last summer, SWJTU presented the “Blue Sky” locomotive project at the Mooresville/Appalachian State University’s 8th  International Hydrail Conference in Toronto, Canada. Three months later, SWJTU honored Mooresville by allowing us to chair the hydrogen locomotive session in Shanghai at the World Hydrogen Technology Convention—WHTC2013.

When the Jade Rabbit landed on the moon, the USA should have gained insight into China’s probable approach to hydrail. They build on existing progress.

The US Department of Defense “landed” a hydrail locomotive on America’s national railroad network back in 2009. Compared will Apollo 11, it cost only chump change. Sadly, it got media coverage in proportion. (Had you ever heard about it?)

So here’s one futurist’s projection. It’s based on observation, not any inside info.

Look for China to unveil not a series of slowly improving prototypes but a small, expanding  fleet of hydrail trains, placed around the country near wind farms (they have most in the world) and near hydroelectric facilities (they also have the world’s largest hydroelectric array).

China’s urban hydrail fleet will be powered by zero-carbon renewable energy, producing no air pollution and bleeding no energy purchase cash flow out of the Central Kingdom’s economy. And whatever China learns about hydrail manufacturing and fleet operations will quickly appear in European, Middle Eastern, African and South American markets.

Before long, solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar thermal electric plants will power China’s urban rail systems cleanly, via hydrogen. With the exception of existing high-speed rail routes (to be depreciated over decades), the vast Chinese network of regional freight and commuter trains will see hydrail traction replacing legacy equipment as existing locomotives and railcars wear out or get replaced sooner for environmental reasons.  Later, hydrail traction will be brought in to eliminate uneconomical pockets of “old tech” in  a consolidating network.

There’s no economic or technology reason why the USA should watch this unfolding techno-drama with alarm. The US is poised to be the favored contender, with a ten-year head-start in hydrail design technology and five more years experience than China operating a large-scale locomotive in ports and rail yards.

General Electric, a world-class locomotive manufacturer with established international markets, has a battery hybrid diesel-electric design (their Evolution series) that appears ideal for a swift upgrade to hydrail.

And we made it to the moon fifty years ago.

So if the USA cedes the huge emerging world hydrail market to China, it will be for only one reason: the same reason that China’s rover hums across the lunar surface today while ours sits silent, accumulating space dust as it has  since the 1960s and 70s when—like China—we chose to go to the moon.

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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