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France’s Alstom signs Saudi deal for hydrogen-powered trains

Alstom launched hydrogen-powered passenger train, Coradia iLint, in 2018
  • Kingdom is investing in public rail and metro networks
  • Building $5bn hydrogen plant in NEOM as part of decarbonising plans
  • Aims to be world’s largest hydrogen exporter by 2030

State-owned Saudi Railway Company (SAR) has signed a memorandum of understanding with France’s Alstom to develop hydrogen trains for the kingdom. 

Saudi Arabia in investing heavily to expand its public rail and metro networks and will build 8,000 kilometres of new track, officials said in January.

SAR operates the Haramain High Speed Rail between Mecca and Medina, the 1,175-kilometre eastern train network from Dammam to Riyadh, and the North Railway, which eventually will span 2,750 kms of track, plus an extensive fleet of freight trains. 

Alstom launched what it claims was the world’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train, Coradia iLint, in 2018. Following four years of testing, the train entered regular commercial service this summer.

Powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, the Coradia iLint travelled a record 1,175 kilometres from Lower Saxony to Bavaria in Germany without refuelling. It has a top speed of 140km/h. 

The tentative agreement between Alstom and SAR for a hydrogen-powered train reflects Saudi’s huge bet on the gas.

The kingdom aims to become the world’s largest hydrogen exporter by 2030, producing both “blue” and “green” hydrogen, as part of its efforts to diversify and decarbonise its economy. 

Hydrogen emits only water when burned or consumed in a fuel cell, so is carbon free. Yet making so-called brown or grey hydrogen via conventional methods involving coal or natural gas emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Train, Transportation, Vehicle
SAR operates the Haramain High Speed Rail between Mecca and Medina

Deploying carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology prevents this CO2 from entering the atmosphere in a process that produces what’s known as blue hydrogen. 

Saudi is also building a $5 billion green hydrogen plant as part of its $500 billion NEOM project. The plant will deploy electricity made from solar and wind power to split water into its constituent elements – hydrogen and oxygen – via electrolysers and will therefore be carbon-free. 

Middle East gas exporters can make grey hydrogen for as little as $1 per kilogram, whereas blue hydrogen costs around $4/kg and green hydrogen up to $6/kg, according to KMPG, although the Gulf’s high solar intensity and low gas extraction costs should enable the region to lower the production cost of both blue and green hydrogen substantially. 

Storing and transporting hydrogen, which is ultra-light and extremely flammable, remains difficult, however. The NEOM plant, for example, will convert the green hydrogen it makes into ammonia, which is easier and safer to transport.