WHA Supports Hydrogen Locomotive Development in California

On July 6, 2023, the California State Transportation Authority announced it will fund Sierra Northern Railway’s (SERA) industry-leading initiative to convert three diesel switching locomotives to hydrogen-powered zero-emission solutions. The grant builds upon an ongoing project to design and test one hydrogen-powered switching locomotive.

Exploring the Potential of Hydrogen Train Engines

Hydrogen fuel cells have several key advantages, making them a promising power source for heavy vehicles like trucks, buses, boats, aircraft, and train locomotives.

  1. Zero emissions: Traditional diesel locomotives produce heavy emissions, but hydrogen fuel cells produce only water vapor.
  2. Low fuel weight: One of hydrogen’s advantages is its high energy density. That means lots of power from relatively little weight.
  3. Relatively fast refueling: Long charge times make large battery-powered trains impractical, but hydrogen fuel cells can be refilled in as little time as liquid fuels.

The “switcher locomotives” featured in this project are smaller engines that move train cars over shorter distances — typically within a train yard. This local area of operation ensures that these locomotives can stay within reach of hydrogen fueling stations as a broader hydrogen refueling infrastructure is not yet established.

Switcher locomotives typically operate within a railyard, moving cars between trains.

Making Progress toward hydrogen-powered locomotives

The SERA project began with a $4M California Energy Commission grant in 2021. This initial grant funded the design, integration, and demonstration of a prototype hydrogen fuel cell switching locomotive.

The recent grant from the California State Transportation Authority will continue moving the project forward with further testing and conversion of three additional diesel switching locomotives. The funds include $19.5M from the Port and Freight Infrastructure Program through a public-private partnership with the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District.

This new project phase will run from 2023-2027, with testing conducted on a purpose-built test track in its West Sacramento rail yard. After testing, all four Hydrogen Zero Emission Switching Locomotives will continue full-time duty, laying the groundwork for the potential conversion of the rest of SERA’s fleet and an additional 260+ hydrogen-powered switchers in California.

WHA Partnership Guides Hydrogen Safety

Since the design phase, WHA International has served as an essential safety partner in SERA’s goals to design and convert hydrogen-powered train locomotives.

While hydrogen shows enormous potential, its properties create unique hazards. This project integrates hydrogen storage, fuel cells, and battery systems — all with their own unique safety challenges.

“We’ve been helping provide design review, hazard analysis, and support for the hydrogen safety plan,” shares Danielle “Dani” Murphy, Ph.D., who leads WHA’s hydrogen services, which include hazards analysis, training, and failure analysis. “We’re helping with operational readiness and ensuring safety throughout the project’s lifecycle.”

WHA has also provided HAZOP facilitation and hydrogen subject matter experts to work to ensure H2-specific risks are captured and mitigated.

Dani reports that the partnership has already proved fruitful, and everyone involved is taking hydrogen safety seriously: “The project partners have adopted a good safety culture, and it’s exciting to see this technology advance.”

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