The attention span of four-year-olds?

You sometimes wonder about the Ontario Liberal government. The kids in the cabinet are too easily distracted. Just the other day, we were reading about transportation minister Stephen Del Duca bragging to a newspaper reporter about the regional express rail expansion—a $13.5 billion electrification program to quadruple commuter train service in the Greater Toronto Area.

And then, to complicate the issue, Del Duca starts talking about hydrogen powered passenger trains. It sounds like a great idea for 50 years from now but the Toronto area needs faster, more efficient service today and electricity is a proven technology.

There is a reason why scientists often say that “Hydrogen is the fuel of the future and always will be.” While it is easy and economical to chemically separate it from a fossil fuel such as methane (natural gas), in the future hydrogen might have to be obtained from water by electrolysis. This is also easy to do, but a far more expensive process as we shift to more wind and solar electricity. Another expense is the fact that hydrogen is very light and difficult to liquefy making it hard to store and transport.

In the Alstom (the European transportation competitor of Bombardier) test train now under trial that is fueled by batteries and hydrogen, it would be very interesting to compare the space for passengers and the space taken up with hydrogen fuel cells and batteries.

A 10-car passenger train would need to add two extra cars to store hydrogen behind the locomotive containing the fuel cells, buffer batteries and electric propulsion motors. By comparison, an electric train, taking its “fuel” from overhead wires, doesn’t even need a locomotive; its propulsion motors can easily be incorporated under the floor of the passenger cars!

(Luckily, the current $528 million contract by Metrolinx with Alstrom is for electric light rail cars for use on Toronto’s new LRT lines.)

Instead of getting some expert advice ahead of time, Del Duca is thinking of committing $5 million of taxpayer’s funds to Metrolinx to study the potential of hydrogen technology. Metrolinx is hoping to co-host a symposium with the University of Toronto this fall with “global leaders” in the technology.

It is interesting that the big sales point of hydrogen is that it is quiet. For that matter, so is electricity.

Recently at a Barrie area garden party event, I was sitting chatting with the host when I noticed that there was a railroad track within a couple meters of his back fence. He told me that it was the Barrie-Toronto GO Train track and they had worried about being disturbed by the diesel engines when it was first announced. “Today, we never notice the trains,” he told me.

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Copyright 2017 © Peter Lowry

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