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First presentation ride aboard Alstom’s German hydrail train

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

A major milestone in railway history was passed on April 13, 2018, when Alstom Transport’s Coradia iLint hydrail [hydrogen fuel cell rail] train made a “presentation ride” from Wiesbaden to Frankfurt, in the federal state of Hesse, Germany. From my point of view it was a bittersweet occasion for two reasons:  I wasn’t onboard and neither, apparently, was anyone from CNN or the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

Instead, the first (only?) English-language online coverage came from Russia.

The first hydrail locomotive (a small mining unit) was American. The American Congress funded creation of the first full-sized hydrail locomotive over a decade ago and CNN did cover that. It was during the George W. Bush administration. Though a denizen of the oil patch, “W” is the only US President who’s truly “got” the hydrogen concept.

That Bush-era hydrail triumph was first shelved and then dismantled during the Obama years—apparently with as much partisan rancor as the vengeful opposition brought to bear on the Affordable Care Act when it came their turn to whack a mole

America makes much—rightly—of the loss of our intellectual properties to China and other countries.  China, the big-engine-who-could, has played tortoise to America’s hydrail hare. Now they have factories in Qingdao and Tangshan.

Much US intellectual property loss is attributable less to theft than to dumpster-diving. The US invented hydrail, saw that it worked perfectly and then tossed it, casually, into the dustbin of history—leaving the lid off so all passers-by could ogle our inventiveness and short vision. The result should surprise no one.

China flew me to Shanghai in 2013 to describe hydrail at the Fifth International Hydrogen Convention. A German friend flew me to Hanover the same year and the following year Schleswig-Holstein hosted Mooresville’s and Appalachian State University’s Ninth International Hydrail Conference in Neumünster. Now Schleswig-Holstein’s committed to replacing all their diesel rolling-stock with wind-sourced hydrail before 2026.

Mooresville and ASU are still trying to get the US to take comparable interest in hydrail. (GE: Here’s an alternative to spinning-off your locomotive division.)

It was a small US town—Mooresville NC—that first pulled together the hydrail pioneers of the world to try and deliver its economic and climate benefits. That was in 2005. We’ve been at it ever since. On June 6-7-8 our colleagues at the University of Rome II-Tor Vergata will host the 13th International Hydrail Conference.

In 2006, during Bush II’s Administration, the Second International Hydrail Conference was held  in the picturesque college town of Herning, Denmark, at what is now Aarhus University. The US Embassy sent the Deputy Chief of Mission to open the Conference. Russia sent seven scientists and engineers. Among the presenters at Herning was a French rail firm who proposed a way to clear the unsightly tangle of 1870s trolley wire from Europe’s beautiful cities.

The company was Alstom Transport; the hydrail follow-through was last week, on the Wiesbaden-Frankfurt line.

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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