But soon after the transportation minister announced the initiative last year, senior figures at Metrolinx privately expressed serious concerns, with one board member describing the effort as a “folly” that could endanger the public, and the agency’s new CEO doubting the “unproven” technology would be ready in time for a major expansion of GO service.
On June 15, 2016, Steven Del Duca, who was Liberal transportation minster at the time, made the surprise announcement that the province and Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for transportation in the GTHA, would look into using hydrogen-powered trains as part of the GO expansion program called regional express rail (RER).
Estimated to cost $13.5 billion, RER is supposed to be complete by 2025. Using hydrogen train technology, or “hydrail,” as part of the program would be ambitious, to say the least. Although French manufacturer Alstom said last year it plans to launch a fleet of 14 hydrogen trains in Germany by 2021, the technology has never been deployed on the larger type of bi-level cars GO operates.
Metrolinx estimates deploying hydrail for RER could require at least 70 hydrogen locomotives and 84 sets of four hydrogen-powered self-propelled carriages by 2025. It would be the first use of hydrogen trains on such a scale anywhere in the world.
According to documents obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request, one day after Del Duca’s announcement, Howard Shearer, a Metrolinx board member, sent agency chair Rob Prichard a blistering email warning that the hydrogen project “must be taken seriously for the folly it represents.”
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“It is simply madness that the Ontario government is seriously considering this,” wrote Shearer, who is also chief executive of Hitachi Power Systems Canada and a board member of the Energy Council of Canada.
“One accident in the implementation of this technology presents grave risk to government, public confidence and Metrolinx,” he said, arguing the storage and distribution of hydrogen could be dangerous.
He predicted it would take “years beyond” the planned RER completion date of 2025 for hydrail to accumulate a safety record Metrolinx could trust, and argued the government’s “rush” to use the technology was “reckless” and would “put lives at risk.”
Shearer doesn’t appear to have ever made his concerns public. He didn’t raise the safety issue when hydrail was discussed at a public Metrolinx board meeting two weeks after Del Duca’s announcement.
In an email to the Star last week, Shearer said he was satisfied with how Metrolinx handled his concerns because the agency acted on his recommendation to have the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, which has experience with hydrogen technologies, take part in the study. He added that his concerns about the early adoption of hydrogen technology “remain the same.”
Although Transport Canada has yet to develop specific safety regulations for hydrail, Metrolinx says hydrogen fuel technology is safe. A feasibility study the agency published in February determined that while “there are potential hazards,” including the risk of combustion, the technology presents “no unresolvable safety issues.”
Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster also expressed reservations about hydrail, not about safety but about the wisdom of potentially pinning the success of RER on an unproven technology.
Weeks before Verster officially took office on Oct. 1, 2017, he received an update on the hydrail program from Metrolinx staff.
Afterward, he sent an email to two Metrolinx executives. “I sense that there may be a fundamental stumbling block â€” the application is untested in a train application, without a reference system and without the development kinks ironed out?” he wrote on Sept. 11, 2017.
“This is in itself a showstopper because we cannot risk the annual benefit from RER on a belief the train builder will resolve such issues on time.”
He noted that “train builders often struggle to deliver standard, existing technology trains.”
“I therefore cannot see how we can include this in the RER scope as it is simply not ready as an application and it is unproven,” he wrote.
In an interview with the Star last week, Verster said he wrote the email to express concern about potentially committing to hydrogen for the GO expansion.
Instead, Metrolinx has decided it will leave it up to the companies bidding on RER whether to propose hydrogen or stick with conventional electrification. Metrolinx plans to issue the request for proposals to design, build and operate RER in early 2019.
Verster said he supports this more cautious approach, and backs the hydrogen initiative as due diligence to ensure Metrolinx doesn’t miss out on potentially transformative technology.
“If there’s an opportunity for something, for this technology to prove feasible, it is worth considering,” he said.
Verster described the September 2017 email as consistent with his public statements on the issue. He told reporters last fall “we are not going to take risks and jeopardize (RER) with technology that isn’t fully proven.”
As part of its assessment, Metrolinx is planning to pay three manufacturers up to $1 million each to develop a concept for a hydrogen-powered locomotive and has contracted Alstom and Siemens at $1.5 million each to design self-propelled carriages. The companies are expected to complete the work this year.
Metrolinx will also pay Hydrogenics, a Mississauga-based company that is supplying hydrogen fuel cells for the trains Alstom plans to operate in Germany, up to $970,000 to provide “support” to the manufacturers.
Including the design work, feasibility study and a hydrail symposium Metrolinx hosted last fall, the entire assessment project is expected to cost at least $10.9 million.
The involvement of a GTA-based hydrogen company was central to Metrolinx’s plans, with the agency stating one of the goals of the project was to help position the province as “a global leader in hydrogen technology.”
In a speech at the hydrail symposium in November, Del Duca said hydrail was “a win for Ontario-based know-how. And that’s good news for our province’s economy.”
“This is about vision. This is about aspiration. This is about innovation,” he said.
Critics of the plan say it’s not Metrolinx’s responsibility to foster economic activity in the province.
RER would involve nearly quadrupling weekly GO trips by 2025, and electrification is a vital component of the plan. Electric trains can accelerate and decelerate faster than diesels, and are necessary to run the more frequent service.
Until Del Duca’s announcement last June, the province had planned to electrify large sections of the GO network using the traditional system of overhead wiring, called a catenary.
Metrolinx considers hydrail a form of electrification because hydrogen fuel is produced through electrolysis, a process that uses electricity to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. An on-board hydrogen fuel cell powers the train, and the only exhaust is steam and condensed water.
Hydrail could potentially offer many benefits compared to a traditional catenary system, including eliminating the need for the disruptive implementation of an overhead wire system along hundreds of kilometres of track.
Metrolinx’s study concluded “it should be technically feasible to build and operate a hydrail system for the GO network” but said pursuing the technology carried risks, including potential delays to RER and high costs caused by fluctuating electricity prices.
“It is critical for us to understand where technology and innovation is leading worldwide and to undertake appropriate due diligence,” said agency spokesperson Suniya Kukaswadia in an email.
“If a hydrogen powered train can meet the highest of safety standards, our service needs and reduce costs, we should be looking at it as other countries have done.”
The incoming Conservative government has not said whether it plans to make changes to the hydrogen project.