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Hydrail versus the Tower of Babel

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by guest blogger Stan Thompson

Thank you, Bill Vantuono, for your Railway Age, November 15, 2019, introduction to a long overdue American first:  San Bernardino’s history-making, Stadler-built hydrogen multiple unit or “HMU”.  It’s a bittersweet debut for those of us who worked for years—beginning in 2003—to add hydrail to Kitty Hawk as a North Carolina transportation first.

But I must take friendly exception to your call for yet another name for hydrail technology:

“Editor’s Note: Perhaps it’s time to coin an acronym to describe this new technology, and add it to the growing list of terms used to identify various types of vehicles.”

When Mooresville conceived hydrogen railway passenger service back in 2003, we understood that naming it would be critical to bringing it into being.  We needed something short, unique and mnemonically relevant for search engine purposes and searched the Internet for hydrail…HYDrogenRAIL…and found it was “available.”

I won’t identify the pre-Google search engine that was used but it failed to ping a water-cooled grinding machine and a Dutch boat launcher that already shared our choice. After they turned up much later in another search, I made sure we never used a capital “H” when writing hydrail, except in a title or the beginning of a sentence.

In 2004, in the News and Views section of the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Jim Bowman and I formally plugged hydrail into the English Language (February: page 438) in a short article called “The Mooresville Hydrail Initiative.”

The next year Mooresville and Appalachian State University held the first of 14 annual International Hydrail Conferences.

I don’t know when The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language picked up hydrail but it’s there now:

1. A rail vehicle that carries hydrogen fuel as its main power source.

2. Rail transport using such vehicles.

After maybe fifty calls and visits to many libraries, I’ve given up on discovering whether the Oxford English Dictionary defines hydrail yet.

Over the past 15 years, one or two hundred pioneers have networked and collaborated steadily to bring about the present world-wide transition from diesel and overhead electrification to hydrail. When, after the 2013  8th International Hydrail Conference in Toronto, Alstom’s Hydrogenics-powered Coradia iLint and CRRC’s Qingdao hydrail tram finally appeared, the breaking-of-ranks quickly drew-in other manufacturers.

The frustrating thing is this:  every time a new hydrail product debuts, the maker’s corporate communications writers think it’s unique—or should be “packaged” as though it were. And so they rename it or descriptorize it: “hydrogen train” is chosen most often.

The upshot, of course, is that with every new name the odds of a researcher or reporter getting an accurate view of hydrail’s history or present scope are diluted. Corp-comm writers shoot themselves in the foot;  instead of the culmination of a scientific and engineering odyssey, their offering comes across as a spontaneous curiosity, out of context.

Today some 24 countries have hydrail projects in manufacture…in the press…or in between. Existing and announced hydrail manufacturers now number about ten!

Some day I hope Railway Age will look around and notice that a paradigm shift analogous to the 1925 introduction of diesel at the expense of steam is well established. It has a name. Its name is “hydrail.” It doesn’t need another.

So far as I can tell, the Wall Street Journal has never printed a word about hydrail. Neither Wabtech nor Progress Rail, America’s locomotive giants, have announced a hydrail product yet. Which, I wonder, is the cause and which the effect?

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel project rang true a millennium before the Romans invented engineering. Where there is no common terminology, progress becomes nearly impossible.

So please, Mr. Vantuono—don’t encourage any more renaming!


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