Toronto Ontario - The province is considering investing in cutting edge hydrogen-powered trains for the GO Transit network, touting the benefits of what it says could be the next generation of clean trains.
Rail vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells would be emissions-free, quiet, and potentially superior to traditional electric trains.
As Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency for the GTHA, embarks on a major expansion of GO service, provincial officials say it's their responsibility to ensure Ontario doesn't miss out on a potentially ground breaking technology.
But hydrogen trains have never been put into service on commuter rail networks of the size GO operates, and it will likely be years before the technology is ready.
That uncertainty, combined with Metrolinx touting a chance to make Ontario, "a global leader in hydrogen technology", has critics asking whether the transit agency is pursuing the idea for the right reasons, particularly because it is already midway through plans to green the GO network using conventional electric trains.
Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca is firmly behind the plan to study hydrogen power.
"The decisions that we make going forward to deliver electrified rail service will create a legacy that will affect generations of future Ontarians," said Celso Pereira, Del Duca's spokesperson.
"There have been significant recent advancements in hydrogen fuel cell technology, so it's critical for us to know if it could be an option here in Ontario. We want to make sure that we are doing our due diligence."
The ministry announced in June it would investigate whether hydrogen trains could be used for GO's regional express rail (RER) expansion plan.
In an effort that could cost the province up to $7.4 million, Metrolinx has since launched a feasibility study, is commissioning up to four manufacturers to design concepts for hydrogen-powered vehicles, and on 16 Nov 2017 will welcome experts from around the world at a hydrogen technology symposium it's co-hosting with the ministry in Toronto.
The results of the study will be made public early next year.
Under the original plans for RER, Metrolinx intended to electrify the GO network using traditional means, which would use an overhead cable system called a catenary to power trains.
The $13.5 billion RER project is supposed to be complete by 2025, and would allow Metrolinx to quadruple its number of weekly train trips by deploying faster, more efficient electric trains.
The province says it began looking at hydrogen as an alternative to conventional electrification as a result of recent developments in Europe, where the French company Alstom performed successful tests of a hydrogen-powered train earlier this year.
The company announced Thursday it had sold 14 of the trains to the German state of Lower Saxony, with an expected in service date of late 2021.
Hydrogen trains could have multiple benefits not provided by catenary electrification.
Hydrogen fuel is produced through a process called electrolysis, in which electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Because most of Ontario's electricity is generated by nuclear or hydro power plants, the fuel could be produced without emitting virtually any greenhouse gases.
Because the fuel is stored for later use after it's produced, it could be produced during off-peak periods overnight, which would lower the cost and allow the province to tap into its considerable electricity surplus.
Hydrogen would also allow Metrolinx to run clean trains while avoiding the expensive and disruptive work of erecting overhead wires along hundreds of kilometres of track.
Perhaps most contentiously, however, Metrolinx says adopting hydrogen trains on the GO network, "could position Ontario to be a global leader in hydrogen technology and kick-start the hydrogen economy."
Central to that objective is a Mississauga-based firm called Hydrogenics, which Metrolinx has contracted to assist in its feasibility study.
The transit agency will pay the company up to $200,000 to "provide support" to the vehicle manufacturers contracted to design a concept hydrogen vehicle.
Metrolinx said Hydrogenics was chosen because it supplied hydrogen fuel cells for the Alstom vehicles being tested in Germany.
How easily that technology could be adapted for the GO network is unclear.
The Alstom train being tested in Europe is a light rail vehicle considerably smaller than the GO trains that will operate under RER, which will consist of up to 12 heavy double-decker cars.
Bob Oliver, a hydrogen train advocate who is helping organize the symposium, admitted he was surprised Metrolinx was contemplating hydrogen trains.
Although he's enthusiastic about Metrolinx's study, he said he previously considered Ottawa's light rail system as the ideal platform for a Canadian test of hydrogen trains.
That's because the cars running in the capital are Alstom's diesel version of the model already being used to test hydrogen power in Germany.
"It wasn't apparent to me that Metrolinx would be interested in this technology," Oliver said.
"To do something on the GO track requires an entirely different scale of vehicle."
If hydrogen fuel cells could be deployed on GO trains, it's not clear that any manufacturer could supply enough vehicles to meet the RER program requirements.
Metrolinx estimates it could need more than 300 of the vehicles by 2025.
Daryl Wilson, CEO of Hydrogenics, believes that timeline is possible.
He argued both hydrogen fuel cells and heavy electric rail vehicles are already on the market, they just need to be combined.
"If we're taking mature fuel-cell technology and putting it on a mature train platform, then it's not as big a leap as folks may think at first blush," he said.
Wilson cautioned that a working prototype would have to be built before a hydrogen GO fleet could be put into production, however.
A spokesperson for Metrolinx said it was too early to determine whether the agency will commission a prototype.
Government-led attempts to get in on the forefront of green transit tech haven't always panned out in the Toronto region.
Starting in 2006, the TTC spent more than $500 million purchasing a fleet of diesel-electric hybrid buses.
They were plagued with reliability issues and quickly became the lemons of its fleet.
The TTC says most of the problems have since been addressed.
In the run-up to the 2007 election, premier Dalton McGuinty proposed partnering with Bombardier to build hydrogen trains for GO, and set a goal of producing a prototype within three years.
The plan was received well, politically, but never materialized.
To Murtaza Haider, an associate professor at Ryerson University who specializes in transit planning, the province's apparent desire to create a market for locally-made hydrogen trains sounds "eerily similar" to plans for the Scarborough RT decades ago.
In the 1980s, a provincially-owned company developed the RT system with the goal of selling it to cities around the world.
Ultimately, only Vancouver and Detroit bought in.
Haider's advice to Metrolinx is to stick with traditional electrification and "don't try to be global leaders in anything."
"I'm not against hydrogen technology. I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm saying, why should we turn Ontarians into guinea pigs for an unproven technology?"
Phil Verster, Metrolinx's new CEO, was appointed after the hydrogen project launched.
He admitted to reporters last month he doesn't see making the province a leader in the hydrogen industry as "an objective for Metrolinx."
Verster promised the agency will be cautious, and will only commit to technology that is "tested."
"Clearly, our main objective here is to deliver RER, and to deliver that to the best possible timeline and the best possible cost line," he said.
"So there will be choices for us to make."