The outgoing Liberal government has described its plan to study hydrogen trains for the GO Transit network as a bold and visionary exercise.
But soon after the transportation minister announced the initiative last year, senior figures at Metrolinx privately expressed serious concerns, with one board member describing the effort as a “folly” that could endanger the public, and the agency’s new CEO doubting the “unproven” technology would be ready in time for a major expansion of GO service.
On June 15, 2016, Steven Del Duca, who was Liberal transportation minster at the time, made the surprise announcement that the province and Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for transportation in the GTHA, would look into using hydrogen-powered trains as part of the GO expansion program called regional express rail (RER).
Estimated to cost $13.5 billion, RER is supposed to be complete by 2025. Using hydrogen train technology, or “hydrail,” as part of the program would be ambitious, to say the least. Although French manufacturer Alstom said last year it plans to launch a fleet of 14 hydrogen trains in Germany by 2021, the technology has never been deployed on the larger type of bi-level cars GO operates.
Metrolinx estimates deploying hydrail for RER could require at least 70 hydrogen locomotives and 84 sets of four hydrogen-powered self-propelled carriages by 2025. It would be the first use of hydrogen trains on such a scale anywhere in the world.
According to documents obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request, one day after Del Duca’s announcement, Howard Shearer, a Metrolinx board member, sent agency chair Rob Prichard a blistering email warning that the hydrogen project “must be taken seriously for the folly it represents.”