Natural gas becoming more abundant doesn’t necessarily leave the hydrogen fuel cell locomotive without a track forward. More likely, hydrails will continue to grow from small beginnings in 2009.
Earlier hydrogen fuel cell locomotive technology lent itself to smaller applications, such as the BNSF Port of Los Angeles HH 1205 locomotive developed in Kansas. The small locomotive is used for shuttling other cars around the lot, but has been a perfect test bed for hydrogen fuel cell technology.
In another project, the South African mining company AMPLATS has started changing over some of its electric locomotives to hydrogen fuel cell technology. The mini hydrail locos refuel much faster than the electric versions can recharge, and have no emissions, crucial to the cramped underground passages in which they work.
Small, of course, is on the beginning, and if electric trains, such as the high-speed TGV, were the last major evolutionary step, the hydrogen fuel cell locomotive could very well be the next big step. The benefits are numerous, including zero-emissions and powerful but efficient electric traction. Cost, though, could be a major deciding factor, when you consider that laying down an electric railway costs millions per mile, but hydrogen refueling stations only need to be built at train stops.