The German Federal Rail Service (DB) sees itself as a pioneer and mainstay of the energy transition. Its website emphasizes the important role DB plays in helping Germany reach its climate targets. DB intends to halve its carbon emissions by 2030 and to be carbon-neutral by 2050. One big hurdle is that just 61% of Germany’s rail network is electrified. Diesel locomotives, which continue to operate on the other lines, emitted roughly 1 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2015. Unless this changes, in the future these emissions would have to be offset at great expense.
To reduce reliance on diesel locomotives, the German government wants to increase the electrified proportion of the rail network to 70% by 2025. This will require the conversion of 500 kilometers of track each year. This is roughly seven times more than has been achieved in recent years.
Ultimately, massive electrification may not even make sense. Indeed, the proportion of electrified track is at best an imperfect yardstick for DB’s decarbonization. This is because the utilization of network segments differs dramatically. For example, DB’s roughly 40% unelectrified track only carries about 8% of its traffic. From this perspective, does DB’s expensive electrification plan (which itself is carbon-intensive) even make sense? Perhaps locomotives powered by hydrogen fuel cells could be the answer.
The rocky road to green rail
DB has already recognized the potential of fuel-cell-powered trains. It’s working with Siemens Mobility to test them between Tübingen and Pforzheim starting in 2024. The Mireo Plus H locomotive has a top speed of 160 kilometers per hour and (in the three-car version) a range of up to 1,000 kilometers with a single tank of hydrogen. The hydrogen will be produced by means of electrolysis equipment at DB’s facility in Tübingen. The equipment will be power by 100% green electricity, rendering the project carbon-neutral.
The project raises hopes for rapid development but also demonstrates the magnitude of the potential conversion. If DB replaced all its diesel locomotives with hydrogen-powered models, it would need about 120,000 metric tons of green hydrogen annually. This alone would require an offshore wind farm with around 1.2 GW of installed capacity.
Good for the economy and the environment
Although hydrogen-powered rail faces some challenges, conversion could still be swifter. Consulting firm SCI Verkehr, for example, predicts that the proportion of new trains powered by batteries or hydrogen will increase significantly in the years ahead. It believes that almost a quarter of all new trains in Germany will have an alternative drive system as early as 2024.
For its part, Siemens Mobility thinks that hydrogen-powered locomotives have a market potential of €50 to €150 billion. Moreover, environmentally friendly transport solutions are also becoming increasingly lucrative: DB Cargo’s Eco Plus, which enables companies to have their freight transported with 100% green electricity for an additional charge, is already becoming increasingly popular. Going forward, rising carbon prices and more climate-neutral transport offers will intensify this trend and accelerate DB’s conversion to hydrogen. This, ultimately, will show whether DB is really capable of propelling the energy transition in Germany.