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Preview: hydrail in 2015

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

Long before he was honored with with his own automobile brand, Serbian inventor-engineer Niccola Tesla had an annual tradition of predicting on his birthday the future of technology.  Lesser lights, including myself, use the birthday of the New Year to make predictions. Here are ten for 2015:

2015-1     The announcement last year by Alstom Transport that its Salzgitter works will produce 40 hydrail trainsets for northern German states by 2020 will move substantially toward becoming a norm rather than just an introduction.

(see search argument:  alstom+forty+trainsets+salzgitter+gazette) Hydrail is hybrid electric railway traction powered by hydrogen fuel cells and batteries in combination. It needs no power applied along the track and so is far less costly.

Specifically, hydrail will become the traction power of choice (replacing diesel) for those European lines where traffic has not been considered adequate to justify the cost of constructing and maintaining external electrification.

Last month I got a call from the staff of a member of the European Parliament.  He asked to be put in touch with hydrail experts in the EU. His Member’s interest had to do with northern Italy.

While it’s dangerous to extrapolate a paradigm shift from just two points, a European shift of rail traction from autobon to sustainably-derived hydrogen is natural for a couple of reasons: (1) oil has become an economic weapon in Europe’s neighborhood and railways are an asset important enough to shield from it; and (2) Europe takes the role of autobon fuels in climate change very seriously.

Well before the German hydrail fleet is deployed, its planned existence could make further extension of track electrification—even where traffic growth might formerly have justified it—non-fungible. The European economy is too stressed allocate millions of Euros to a doubtful legacy technology, just on the basis of tradition and familiarity. If the Alstom innovation becomes generally known, public funding for expensive, 130-year-old overhead electrification could become hard to justify.

2015-2    The venerable Oxford English Dictionary will finally—if belatedly—include a hydrail entry.

2015-3    The developing hydrail collaboration among North Carolina’s Appalachian State University (“ASU”), the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (“UNCC”) and the University of Birmingham, UK (“UB”), will be formalized.  Ever since UB hosted the Seventh International Hydrail Conference in 2012 they have been exchanging speakers and graduate students with UNCC.  UB granted its first hydrail Ph.D. to Dr. Andreas Hoffrichter (now at Warwick University) in 2013. I expect to see the first advanced railway technology school in the Americas to offer hydrail courses begin to take shape  at UNCC in 2015.

2015-4   UNCC will, I predict, host the Tenth International Hydrail Conference in North Carolina this year, becoming the first host to organize two Hydrail Conferences. (UB will host the Eleventh Hydrail Conference in the UK, becoming the second repeat host.) Appalachian State will continue to play the central organizing role in both, as they have for every Hydrail Conference since the first in 2005.

2015-5  The small fleet of hydrail mining locomotives now being tested in the Republic of South Africa will be expanded and plans for the total replacement (or upgrading) of battery powered mining locomotives in the country with hydrail will be disclosed.

Now, following are some predictions that I devoutly hope to get wrong.  They are things that could be going to happen in 2015 but which won’t—not because of any technological or financial reasons but simply because of Niccolo Machiavelli’s principle explaining “The Difficulty of Change.”

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to autory out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things.

For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have actually had experience of it.

Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans while the others only defend him halfheartedly, so that between them he runs great danger.”

Machiavelli was referring to innovators. His principle, though, is just as applicable to the innovations themselves—including hydrail. Here are some predictions concerning what might have been but almost certainly won’t:

2015-6   SICA (the Spanish acronym for the Central American Integration System) will not announce the first leg of a hydrail train line connecting Panama to Guatemala (and all the intervening countries), powered by hydrogen electrolyzed from the abundant hydroelectricity  in the region. The United States, whose Congress funded the invention of hydrail at the beginning of this century, will not take a leadership position to facilitate such a rail line, which could enhance relations with Latin America. But China, whose Southwest Jiaotong University recently produced their first hydrail locomotive, may do so.

2015-7   The USA will not include, as part of its thaw with Cuba, help with the integration of the Island’s railroads into a system of  hydrail tourist trains powered by renewable biomass hydrogen made from bagasse—the fibrous waste product of cane sugar production.

2015-8   News media fixation on electric automobiles (whose manufacturers buy retail advertising) will largely eclipse the offshore emergence of hydrail trams/streetautos (whose makers sell only to governments and don’t advertise), further retarding reintroduction of streetautos. The resulting harm to public transit will reprise the 1940’s effort toward displacement of streetautos by private auto manufacturers—though the insistent emergence of an urban no-auto generation will assure an eventual streetauto market;  just later in developing than it could have been.

2015-9   The job-creating ability of wireless hydrail streetauto lines to move materials and finished products in and out of urban areas during the wee hours of the morning will not help either Europe or the USA to grow their manufacturing sectors and grow walkable employee commuting. This is a shame; Volkswagen’s brilliant innovation in Dresden could be applied in a lot of lagging American cities, including—ironically—Detroit.  (see search argument:   volkswagen+dresden+urban+factory)

2015-10   US municipalities will continue to pour public money into short-lived, extravagantly priced, legacy trolley lines—restringing unsightly aerial plant and eliminating tree-lined city-scapes—because of a want of news coverage disclosing to the public the existence of a far less costly wireless hydrail alternative.

So much for a look at what will and won’t be. To see what is (for hydrail news references and access to presentations at International Hydrail Conferences since 2005), visit: .



About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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