The hydrogen bet for the decarbonization of rail transport in France
While the transportation sector is one of the largest issuers of greenhouse gases, transitioning to rail transport is the most effective way to reduce energy consumption and therefore greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. On the way to carbon neutrality by 2050, France is supporting the development of hydrogen and going for hydrogen rail transport projects.
France’s commitment to decarbonizing the transportation sector is on the right track
France is committed to tackling CO2 emissions with a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. The transport sector contributed around 31% of France’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. According to the GHG emission data calculated by Citepa, transportation is the sector that contributes the most to France’s GHG emissions. Significant decarbonization is required in this sector in order to achieve carbon neutrality.
However, compared to road transport, which is the most polluting mode of transportation, rail transport is already environmentally friendly, representing only 0.4% of GHG emissions. The low-emissions of France’s train transport network are largely due to the fact that just over half of the rail lines are powered by electricity. The 45% of the non-electrified rail network, representing 30,000 km of track is used by diesel trains which will need to be replaced within the next decade.
The rail transport sector represents a key opportunity for France’s energy transition. As the transport sector is one of the main causes of GHG emissions, expanding the rail transportation, the most efficient mode of transporting passengers and goods, is a crucial component of France’s decarbonization strategy.
Hydrogen for the decarbonization of rail transport
The interest in hydrogen is not recent, and France, like so many other European Union member states and international powers, has bet on decarbonized hydrogen (produced by nuclear and renewable energy sources). There is no doubt that decarbonized hydrogen technology is promising and inspires hope for the energy transition. Indeed, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission has described hydrogen as “the Rockstar of the energy system” . Hydrogen provides unique energy carrier opportunities as a carbon-neutral and storable energy that can decarbonize one of the dirtiest sectors of the economy.
France has supported the development of hydrogen through its 2018 Hydrogen Plan, and has reaffirmed its intention to develop hydrogen, including decarbonized hydrogen. This was reaffirmed by the French Hydrogen Strategy in September 2020, and by the France 2030 plan. The French plan in favour of hydrogen is based on the integration of decarbonized hydrogen in the transportation sector.
The development of decarbonized hydrogen has resulted in the introduction of the first hydrogen train in France in 2022.
The development of hydrogen trains in France
The market for hydrogen trains in rail transport is growing rapidly. The SNCF has announced that four regions have ordered 14 dual-mode trains, powered by electricity and hydrogen, for their TER (regional networks), a first time for France. The commercial launch of these hydrogen regional trains is planned for the end of 2025.
Recently, France’s first hydrogen-powered train, Alstom’s “Coradio iLint”, has completed its first conclusive tests on the tracks of the railway test centre near Valenciennes. This is new for France, although this model has already been circulating in Germany since 2018. The Italian operator FNM has already placed an order and the Netherlands and Sweden are in the advanced test phases with the French company Alstom.
Still a challenge for the future
While hydrogen has its advantages, others question its accessibility. The production of decarbonized hydrogen requires significant nuclear and renewable energy production. In order to transition the rail network towards carbon neutrality, France will need develop its energy sector. France’s hydrogen plans, therefore, remain dependent on the development of this market.
 8 July 2020, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commision