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From Russia to Charlotte and back: a hydrail odyssey

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by guest blogger Stan Thompson

Everything seems to have a Ukraine connection these days. Why not hydrail (H2 fuel cell rail traction)?

Per Wikipedia, in 1880, several years before Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, a Ukrainian engineer named Pyotr Pirotsky introduced the world’s first electric “tram” (European for “streetcar”) in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  Soon Pirotsky connected with a better-known German engineer, Karl Friedrch von Siemens, and rail traction powered by an overhead wire—a catenary—was born. Today, 140 years down the track, catenary is still alive but its capital and maintenance costs have become so prohibitive that new systems are seldom proposed.

An important exception is High Speed Rail, whose power requirements are so high that it will take a long time to adapt hydrail to that application.

In 2003 I was invited to the US DOT’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge MA to present an idea mentioned earlier to a colleague there, Senior Engineer Gary Ritter. The occasion was a planning session of Federal and other players to adapt a recently developed fuel cell mining traction technology to a vastly larger switching locomotive for military bases. The result, BNSF 1205, is still probably the largest hydrogen vehicle ever to move on land.

But I was there to propose a different use:  wireless, zero-pollution, carbon-free passenger rail transportation.

Charlotte NC is where I grew up and worked much of my career. Mooresville NC is where I retired to live on Lake Norman. Early in this century, with soon-to-be Mooresville Mayor Bill Thunberg and CATS, the Charlotte Area Transit System, I was working to introduce hydrogen fuel cell railway traction on a Charlotte-to-Mooresville transit line that was never to be;  the corridor owners changed their minds about leasing the track.

But that’s how, in 2003, I came to be invited by the US DOT to Cambridge, where I gave a PowerPoint entitled “The Mooresville Hydrail Initiative.”

It’s all but impossible for anything new and global to emerge if it doesn’t have a name.

At the invitation of the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, I wrote an article in their February 2004 issue and hydrail became the generic name for fuel cell rail technology.

Mooresville and Appalachian State University started convening International Hydrail Conferences in 2005. The idea caught on globally. Mooresville and “App State” have now convened fourteen “IHCs” in the USA, Denmark, Spain, Turkey, the UK, Canada, Austria and Italy.

“15IHC” next year is at the University of British Columbia Canada’s Okanagan Campus.

At our 2006 Second International Hydrail Conference in Denmark, Russian Railways sent seven conferees—the largest governmental group yet.

At our first Canadian IHC (Toronto, 2013) Hydrogenics (now part of Cummins, Inc.) and Alstom Transport of Paris coupled-up to create the Coradia iLint hydrail commuter trains now running in Germany.  Some twenty-three countries now have, or are planning, hydrail factories, trains or rail lines.

Just recently, Russia announced that Saint Petersburg—the 1880 birthplace of Pirotsky’s invention—will now become the introduction city for their first hydrail tram—the trolley-replacing technology created near Charlotte!  The ironic thing is that Pyotr Pirotsky’s 1880’s Russian high-tech was re-introduced in Charlotte in 1996 and its present form (von Siemens’ overhead wire) now powers Charlotte’s Blue Line light rail system.

Despite the savings potential and its Charlotte origin, no hydrail tram or light rail deployment has yet been proposed in my home town.  Now that St. Petersburg, Russia, has “gone hydrail,” maybe Charlotte will reconsider.


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