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Could Russia pioneer high-speed hydrail?

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by guest blogger Stan Thompson

When Russia and Japan recently exchanged econdev ideas (December 2019) at the ministerial level, two of the specifics discussed were hydrogen production and greater use of the Trans-Siberia Railway. Those two dots, connected with others, could lead to Russia leaping the high speed bump now obstructing the way to wireless fuel cell high speed railways.

Japan is a high-profile leader in the hydrogen transition who also pioneered hydrail prototypes nearly twenty years ago.  Very early in this century, JR East, Japan’s biggest private railway system, and the Government’s Railway Transportation Research Institute (RTRI), vied with one another to produce the first practical fuel cell railcar demonstration. About this time, RTRI came to Charlotte, NC, and helped us launch the International Hydrail Conference series.

Today Japan is reentering a much busier hydrail parade, this time with the private sector in the lead.

Will Russia take notice of this and act?  Probably so. Here’s why.

Russian Railways took keen interest in hydrail in 2006, just a year after the Mooresville Hydrail Initiative invited the world to collaborate in our wished-for fuel cell transit line to Charlotte. They sent a seven-member delegation, including a real-time translator, to the Second International Hydrail Conference in Herning, Denmark. This remains the largest government delegation ever sent in the Conference’s 14-year  history.

At Hydrail Conferences a few years later, “RuRail” allowed me to present on their behalf the story of their fuel cell Power Car.  This innovation let them replace diesel-hydraulic track maintenance equipment used in tunnel track operations with electric motor driven machines. Post-diesel, they no longer had to force Russian winter air into the tunnel workplace to expel exhaust—a dramatic health advantage for work crews!

Back then I couldn’t help observing that, as a historic demonstration, their Power Car could be coupled to an electric locomotive via appropriate inverter/voltage apparatus and made to pull the Red Arrow train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The Russians like big “firsts” and this could have held the hydrail distance record for years.

St. Petersburg is the birthplace of electric railways.  All light rail and streetcar lines in the USA date back to the early 1880s and a Ukrainian engineer named Pyotr Pirotsky who built the first electric tram line there.  Soon Werner von Siemens added the car-top contact apparatus we see today.

When Pirotsky did his thing in 1880, Queen Victoria was on the British throne; Confederate President Jefferson Davis was in retirement in Mississippi; Ulysses S. Grant was not yet in his eponymous tomb; Joseph Stalin was in diapers;  Winston Churchill was six; Franklin D. Roosevelt was two;  Zaitian, eleventh emperor of the Qing Dynasty, would rule the most populous country on earth for another twenty-eight years.

Thirteen years earlier, Russia had sold Alaska to the United States.

The overhead wire technology still being planned for future deployment in the USA dates from 140 years ago in Russia. But today St. Petersburg is planning to deploy the hydrail technology proposed in Charlotte almost twenty years ago while Charlotte continues to plan transit technology introduced in St. Petersburg twenty-four years before the Russo-Japanese War.

And so it is that Japan could very well light V.V. Putin’s way out of the dark oil monoculture morass which has stifled the brief promise of Russia since Yeltsin’s thaw. The high costs of maintaining catenary plant across her vast distances give Russian Railways a powerful incentive to “go for it.”  Sergei Kitaev of tram builder Goerelectrotrans, quoted in Fuel Cell Works, says, “…You do not need to build substations for 100-150 million rubles and an electrical contact network, which costs about 14 million rubles per kilometer…”

Can Russia put their hydrail tram on steroids and produce the first high speed hydrogen train? Will the Shinkansen and the Train à Grande Vitesse soon be joined by a Sputnik hydrail express?

The USA built the first full-scale hydrail locomotive in 2008 but quickly lost its train of thought.  It would be just like Russia to play tortoise to America’s distracted hare.

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