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Alstom tests its Coradia iLint hydrogen-powered train between Reignac-sur-Indre and Loches, central France, on Feb. 1.GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP/Getty Images

French transportation giant Alstom SA ALSMY will do a trial run of its Coradia iLint hydrogen-powered train in Quebec’s Charlevoix region this summer as it eyes a wider commercialization of zero-emissions rail technology in North America.

The company, which bought Montreal-based Bombardier Inc.’s BBD-B-T rail unit in 2021, will put the hydrogen train in service for paying passengers on the Réseau Charlevoix rail network under a partnership with Quebec announced Thursday. It will be the first test of the Coradia iLint on this continent after a launch in Europe five years ago.

“We have a plan we’ve presented to the government and to our partners to bring these technologies to the level of maturity needed to start industrialization in the horizon of 2030,” said Michael Keroullé, president of Alstom Americas.

The company is looking at several market niches where hydrogen-powered trains could work in Canada and the United States, notably as a replacement for the estimated 27,000 diesel locomotives pulling passenger and cargo trains, Mr. Keroullé said during a news conference with Premier François Legault and two provincial cabinet ministers.

There are still many uncertainties about how the technology would work in a cold climate and it will take several years to assess those ahead of a decision to launch any related manufacturing in the region, he said.

EU launches €5.4-billion hydrogen project with Alstom, Daimler and others

Alstom, which took over Bombardier’s train plants in La Pocatière, Que., Kingston and Thunder Bay as part of the acquisition, has been flexing its muscle in Canada of late as it tries to position itself as a partner of choice for governments trying to decarbonize their economies. The company is also pushing the Trudeau government to go all-in on a French-style TGV (train à grande vitesse) high-speed rail service between Quebec City and Toronto. Its headquarters for the Americas – covering 12 countries from Canada south to Latin America – is in Quebec and it employs 1,800 people here.

Quebec will fund $3-million of the $8-million estimated cost of the four-month trial. The province, which has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, is keen to see whether “green hydrogen” generated from its hydroelectric power is a viable way to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions for its transportation sector.

“Hydrogen will become important for heavy transport and for industrial processes,” said Pierre Fitzgibbon, Minister of the Economy, Innovation and Energy. He said some 45 per cent of Quebec’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and about one-third of that is not suitable to go all-electric, which means it has to be converted instead to some kind of bio-energy or hydrogen. “We have to focus on that. That’s why we’re doing this project.”

There are some bragging rights associated with the trial as well. Quebec would be the first jurisdiction in the Americas to run a train powered by green hydrogen for paying passengers and test the associated infrastructure required to make it work, which is not lost on the Legault government.

“We’re ahead of a lot of other places,” Mr. Fitzgibbon said. “We’re showing our innovation here by saying ‘Let’s take a heavy vehicle and show people what a hydrogen train looks like.’”

The Coradia iLint first entered commercial service in Germany in 2018 and has travelled more than 220,000 kilometres in eight European countries, according to Alstom. The train is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell that emits only water vapour during operation.

Alstom has received orders for 41 Coradia train sets from clients in Europe, the company says. It says the train has a top speed of 140 kilometres an hour and acceleration and a braking performance comparable to a standard regional diesel train – but without the noise and the emissions. One Coradia last year travelled a distance of 1,175 kilometres without refuelling but the Quebec train will have a range of about 500 kilometres.

Quebec-based fuel producer Harnois Énergies will supply Alstom with the hydrogen. HTEC, another partner, will provide the necessary equipment for refuelling.

Alstom last year set up a new innovation centre for green rail mobility solutions located in St-Bruno-de-Montarville, Que., a commitment it made as part of the Bombardier takeover. That centre will gather the data from the Charlevoix trial to help the company plot the next steps as it evaluates the viability of hydrogen rail propulsion for North America.

Follow Nicolas Van Praet on Twitter: @NickVanPraetOpens in a new window

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