The Ontario government is talking to Bombardier Transportation about funding the development of one of the world's first hydrogen-powered trains, Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty said yesterday.
The discussions, both Bombardier and the government said, are in the early stages, with any actual vehicle several years away.
But the project could see the government commit research money - no one would say how much - as well as promise to buy the finished products to run on its Toronto-area GO Transit system.
Most trains in the world use either greenhouse-gas-emitting diesel engines or electricity, which is cleaner but is still often generated using greenhouse-gas-producing coal plants.
A train that uses a hydrogen fuel cell to combine hydrogen with oxygen to create the electricity needed to run its motor would essentially be a zero-emissions vehicle, producing only water vapour, proponents say.
The trains might run on hydrogen produced by Ontario's nuclear plants.
Still, the technology remains unproven and much more expensive than conventional locomotives. However, private consortia and governments in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are looking into hydrogen trains, and a pilot project is on the rails in Japan.
Mr. McGuinty was clearly trying to appeal to a variety of voters with the idea: Toronto area-commuters, environmentalists, and the workers of Thunder Bay, where Bombardier builds rail vehicles.
He sold the idea yesterday as a job-creation initiative, flanked by the two Liberal MPPs in Thunder Bay.
But in an interview, Bombardier Transportation vice-president Mike Hardt wouldn't explicitly guarantee that the initiative would create jobs at the Thunder Bay plant, which builds rail cars for GO Transit and subway cars for the Toronto Transit Commission.
He said he was optimistic that if the deal came together as conceived, the project - for which a hydrogen fuel-cell company must also be found - would create jobs there.
This week, NDP Leader Howard Hampton flew to Thunder Bay to slam Mr. McGuinty for allowing municipalities, including Ottawa and Toronto, to buy rail cars built elsewhere, instead of forcing those contracts to flow to Thunder Bay.
Yesterday, both the Progressive Conservatives and Mr. Hampton dismissed Mr. McGuinty's announcement as too vague.
"Dalton McGuinty spent the whole day trying to dodge stories about northern job losses," Mr. Hampton said in an e-mailed statement. "... This is another McGuinty promise - and a pretty vague one at that."
Also, just before the election, the government committed millions to switch GO Transit's Lakeshore lines to electric trains.
And GO has just purchased a new generation of diesel locomotives.
Greg Sorbara, Mr. McGuinty's Finance Minister, said the GO system will be expanding and will need even more trains.
He also dismissed the accusation that this was a handout for Bombardier: "We are investing millions and millions of dollars in research and development. ... Our approach to getting an edge in the next economy is to partner with business and industry."
Greg Naterer, a Canada research chair in advanced energy systems at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, said his team is studying the feasibility of hydrogen trains.
"I think personally that it makes sense, and we may see it before we see it in cars," Dr. Naterer said, explaining that trains, unlike cars, do not have to sort out where to store the hydrogen.