Research from Michigan State University’s Center for Railway Research and Education contributed to a decision to order the first commercial hydrogen-powered train for use in North America. The work was completed for the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) seeking low- or zero-emission options for its new Arrow railway service, and was conducted in partnership with the Birmingham Center for Railway Research and Education and Mott MacDonald. The effort was made possible through a full funding grant from the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA).

“Investigating alternative fuels and powertrains for railway vehicles is one of our areas of expertise,” said Andreas Hoffrichter, Burkhardt Professor in Railway Management and Executive Director of the CRRE. “We are globally leading in this field with particular expertise in hydrogen fuel cell railway vehicles, so this project was a natural fit.”

The SBCTA’s Arrow service will operate over a 9-mile corridor in San Bernardino County, California, initially with diesel multiple unit trains and with planned introduction of the zero-emission, hydrogen-powered train in 2024.

The CRRE, housed in MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business, has worked on the project over the past year, evaluating the suitability of various technologies, estimating emission levels, and conducting a high-level cost analysis for the Arrow service. The research also considered expansion of the service by approximately 60 miles—connecting San Bernardino to Los Angeles Union Station—and made recommendations based on which low- or zero-emission technology could best cover that route.

The researchers examined traditional wayside electrification, conventional diesel-electric, biofuels, natural gas, batteries, hydrogen fuel cell technology, and hybrid powertrain options. The team’s final recommendations proposed a battery-powered train or a hydrogen fuel cell hybrid train, and SBCTA decided in favor of the latter due to easier scalability and the potential larger service expansion.

As a result of CRRE’s technical contribution, the SBCTA signed a contract on Nov. 14 with Stadler U.S., Inc., to commission the first hydrogen-powered, zero-emission passenger train to the U.S.

“MSU research and technical input was paramount in advancing the SBCTA Board of Directors decision to move forward with hydrogen-powered technology,” said Carrie Schindler, director of Transit & Rail Programs for SBCTA. “Being in one of the worst air quality areas in the nation, projects like this are critical to SBCTA’s mission to improve the quality of life for San Bernardino County residents,” she continued.

Hoffrichter added, “MSU’s involvement with this project furthers our work to use innovative research to propel the railway industry forward.”