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Hydrail Transition: The Catenary versus the Hindenburg

by guest Blogger Stan Thompson

A headline in the January 2018 online issue of Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers publication is the latest hydrail transition landmark:

Transport Secretary calls for hydrogen trains

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has said the introduction of hydrogen-powered trains is “a priority” for Britain’s railways.

The article by Amit Katwala goes on to quote: “I expect to see a transformation of technology on our railways over the coming years, with the introduction of different types of battery electric hybrid trains, and I see that as a priority,” said Grayling during a debate in the House of Commons last week. “I want the first hydrogen trains to [operate] on our rail network within a short period of time.”

Thus the UK Joins Germany, Canada, China, and the earliest hydrail pioneer, Japan in halting further deployment of external track electrification in favor of onboard electrification: hydrail.

Sadly, in the United States the fuel cell rail technology to replace overhead electrification has, although proven for over a decade, not been brought to the public’s notice by national media. In Japan, both the government and private sectors had hydrail demonstrator trains running right after the turn of the century. Here in the US, the Department of Defense—partnering with BNSF Railways—operated hydrail switch engine 1205 for months…but it was shut down forever after President Bush, a strong hydrogen advocate, left office.

As I’ve often asserted, media professionals’ nescience—science’s equivalent of illiteracy and innumeracy—has the less informed public believing that hydrogen is a uniquely hazardous transportation energy carrier. Some have gone to the absurd length of mentioning the interminably hyped 1937 Hindenburg dirigible fire as if there were a comparison.

There is a logical comparison—but it’s not with hydrail.

Rather, the Hindenburg incident begs comparison with the Victorian-era overhead railway electrification systems called catenaries.

“Catenary” is the common term for those miles of exposed 600-to-25,000 volt wire hanging, rain or shine, just above conventional electric trains. If you Google:  catenary (killed OR died OR death) you’ll usually get about 150,000 responses. If you’re at all squeamish, don’t open any of the links; the grisly descriptions are not for the faint of heart and the images they invoke are hard to forget.

Media writers: if you must have something sensational to tout, why not let the 32 people who perished with the Hindenburg 80 years ago rest in peace and direct your reader’s attention to the present. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of folks were toasted by catenaries a half-century before the Hindenburg. Catenary victims were dying, unremarked, all over the world in 1937 when Herbert Oglevee Morrison was popping his immortal “Oh, the humanity” quip. They are still dying, unnoticed, in vastly greater numbers than dirigible victims right up until the present time.

We hydrail advocates have pursued the technology to reduce health-hazardous diesel locomotive exhaust and greenhouse gas emissions; to avoid stranding public money in the $10-million-per-mile capitalization and $150-thousand-per-mile yearly maintenance cost of catenaries. We’ve also sought to link rail traction to zero-carbon renewable wind and solar power. Some city dwelling hydrail advocates in Europe and Asia think elimination of tacky urban aerial trolley plant is reason enough to go wireless.

Perhaps, to get hydrail rolling faster, we should have taken cues from Hindenburg announcer Herb Morrison and P. T. Barnum and—every time Hindenburg hype pops-up—pointed to the many more horrible deaths by electrocution that catenary deployment has inflicted over the last 140 years and will continue to inflict…until catenary is eventually replaced by wireless hydrail electrification.

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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