Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trains

There is no question that railroads are one of the most efficient freight transportation modes. They use much less energy to transport the same amount of freight than trucks. However the railroad industry still uses fossil fuels. That is why new research into how locomotives that can use hydrogen as a fuel instead of diesel is exciting. Many companies are investing in this technology which could lead us into a new age in the railroad industry. In this article I will explore this technology in more detail.

How Current Locomotives Work

Most freight train locomotives are powered by electricity that is generated by a diesel motor. According to the website below, Karim Nice explains that the diesel engine that is used to generate the electricity is so large that even one cylinder has far more displacement than an entire car engine (Nice). Because of its size, the engine can only run at between 270–900 rotations per minute-RPMs (Nice). Therefore it would require a gigantic gear box of 20 or more gear ratios to be able to get the train to speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour or 180 kmph (Nice). It is also much better to keep the engine at a constant speed, which is better for generating electricity (Nice). Then the electricity can be used to move the train.

How Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work

A fuel cell works just the opposite of the electrolysis experiments you conducted in high school science class. According to the websites below, in a fuel cell you have a negative anode and a positive cathode (How). Hydrogen gas flows to the anode and air, with its abundant oxygen molecules, flows to the cathode (How). Both the anode and cathode are considered catalyst layers and consist of tiny particles of platinum disbursed over a carbon support (Parts). A catalyst then separates the hydrogen into protons and electrons(Parts). The electrons flow through wires out of the fuel cell creating electricity, while the protons go through the electrolyte membrane and are combined with oxygen to create water vapor and heat (Fuel Cell Basics).

Sources of Hydrogen to Run Fuel Cells.

Hydrogen can be obtained through a number of different processes. First it can be produced through electrolysis. Electricity is supplied to the anode and cathode and used to pull the hydrogen from the oxygen and split the water molecule (Electrolysis). When renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy are used to produce hydrogen, it is a carbon free source of energy.

It can also be captured from reforming natural gas with steam. Under pressure the steam and natural gas combine to form hydrogen and some carbon monoxide (Hydrogen).

Hydrogen for Locomotives

Some companies are experimenting with using hydrogen fuel cells in their locomotives. This type of engine would use a fuel cell stack with hundreds or thousands of fuel cells to combine hydrogen from a fuel tank and oxygen from the air into water (Luscak). This would supply the electricity to the electric motors instead of the diesel engine discussed above (Luczak). In addition to the fuel cells, locomotives often have a battery to use as backup power and to supply power to critical systems involved with the locomotive (Luczak).

Companies like Burlington Northern Santa Fe — BNSF and Canadian Pacific — CP are two companies looking into this technology. According to the website below, BNSF has been experimenting with fuel cells and testing them on switch locomotives (Fuel Cell Locomotive).

This article describes how Canadian Pacific is integrating a fuel cell system from Ballard Power systems to power its locomotives (Canadian Pacific).


Fuel cells can play a major role in the railroad industry. We are just now beginning to tap into this amazing technology. In this article I have explained how locomotives work, how fuel cells work, and how fuel cells can be integrated into locomotives to provide the energy to transport freight. I hope that investment in fuel cells by both rail and truck freight haulers will continue and we will usher in a new era in transportation.

If you liked this article please consider following me.

Works Cited

Nice, Karim. How Diesel Locomotives Work. How Stuff Works https://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/engines-equipment/diesel-locomotive.htm. Viewed on April 10, 2022 at 10:00pm.

Fuel Cell Basics. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/fuel-cell-basics. Viewed on April 11, 2022 at 11:30am.

How a Fuel Cell Works. FuelCell Energy. https://www.fuelcellenergy.com/benefits/how-a-fuel-cell-works/. Viewed on April 11, 2022 at 1:30pm.

Parts of a Fuel Cell. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/parts-fuel-cell. Viewed on April 11, 2022 at 2:45pm.

Hydrogen Production: Natural Gas Reforming. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-natural-gas-reforming Viewed on April 11, 2022 at 4:55 pm.

Electrolysis of Water. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrolysis_of_water. Viewed on April 11, ar 3:15pm.

Fuel Cell Locomotive. https://www.bnsf.com/communities/environmental/fuel.html. Viewed on April 11, at 3:45pm.

Canadian Pacific. CP to Employ Ballard Fuel Cells in Hydrogen Locomotive Project. March 9, 2021. https://investor.cpr.ca/news/press-release-details/2021/CP-to-employ-Ballard-fuel-cells-in-Hydrogen-Locomotive-Project/default.aspx. Viewed on April 11, 2022 at 3:55pm.

Luczak, Marybeth. CP’s Hydrogen Locomotive Powers Up. Railway Age. January 25, 2022. https://investor.cpr.ca/news/press-release-details/2021/CP-to-employ-Ballard-fuel-cells-in-Hydrogen-Locomotive-Project/default.aspx. Viewed on April 11, 2022 at 4:41pm.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mark Kirby

Mark Kirby

I am a recent graduate of the Complex Systems and Data Science program at the University of Vermont. I enjoy programming and data visualization in Python.