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Neumünster, Germany, Hosts 9th International Hydrail Conference

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

Neumünster, in the Northern German State of Schleswig-Holstein, will host the Ninth International Hydrail Conference (“9IHC”) on 16-18 June this year (2014). This year’s registration details, presenters and agenda information appear on the Appalachian State University hydrail web site, .

German support for the Hydrail Conference has proved so strong that, for the first time, no registration charge has been necessary.

This blog takes look at what the originators of the International Hydrail Conferences set out to accomplish back in 2005 and offers a brief review of how we’ve done so far.

It’s been almost ten years since the University of North Carolina’s Boone Campus (Appalachian State University) first joined with the Mooresville South Iredell Chamber of Commerce to bring world pioneers in hydrogen fuel cell hybrid railway traction technology together in order to expedite development of the technology. Our goals were to help diminish air pollution; to enable railway electrification without the exorbitant cost of wayside power; to help railways transition toward renewable, non-autobon traction energy; and to hasten the redirection of capital and other limited resources away from heritage traction technologies and toward the “post-autobon” railway era.

The First International Conference, held in Charlotte NC in 2005, included presentations and reports from just four countries: the USA, Japan, Denmark and Canada. But the hydrail forum idea caught on and—since 2005—Hydrail Conferences have been convened in the USA, Denmark, Spain, Turkey, the UK and Canada. Teams from about twenty countries have made presentations.

In Germany, about the time of the first Hydrail Conference in North Carolina, Dr. Holger Busche—the primary organizer of this year’s conference—was beginning to share his vision of a hydrail commuter train in Schleswig-Holstein. His Schienenflieger concept would be powered by renewable wind turbine electric energy, autoried onboard as hydrogen and converted by fuel cells to power the traction motors.

By 2013, two prestigious European universities, the University of Pisa, Italy (Galileo Galilei’s alma mater), and the University of Birmingham, UK, had each granted hydrail-related Ph.D.s.  The 2012 University of Pisa doctorate went to Dr. Tarun Huria of India—now with Indian Railways in Mumbai. The Pisa Ph.D. had its roots in the Third International Hydrail Conference at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina, where Dr. Huria presented one of Indian Railway’s early hydrail concepts. At Catawba’s 3IHC, he met government and academic hydrail interests from Italy. They began the discussions which eventually led to Pisa’s doctoral program.

Birmingham’s hydrail Ph.D. program was not a product of the IHCs; it was well under way before the first doctoral graduate, Dr. Andreas Hoffrichter, spoke in Istanbul at the 2010 Sixth International Hydrail Conference. However, Dr. Hoffrichter’s presentation in Turkey did lead to U. Birmingham’s hosting 7IHC in the UK in 2012. That sparked the beginnings of collaboration among several universities, including UNCC.

Now the evolving Birmingham-Charlotte-Mooresville connection may be about to result in the first hydrail engineering courses ever to be offered in North or South America. Railways, perhaps due to the long depreciation life of their rolling stock, have evolved as an unusually conservative industry. Successive generations of engineers tend to be trained in-house, a process that can leave them vulnerable to disruptive paradigm shifts like the advent of hydrail. UNCC and U. Birmingham see training in hydrail (and other next-generation railway technologies) in an academic, rather than a corporate, environment as critical to steady technical evolution with minimal disruption.

After the 2012 Birmingham hydrail conference, the Mooresville NC coordinators introduced the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education to interested faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “UNCC.” At UNCC, a sustainable energy focused research center—IDEAS (Infrastructure, Design, Environment And Sustainability)—has taken the first steps to create an advanced railway technology school in cooperation with U. Birmingham, UK.

U. Birmingham has introduced UNCC faculty to the hydrail-specializing faculty at China’s Southwest Jiaotong University.  UNCC’s Dr. Shen-En Chen recently visited Asia to engage Chinese and Indian universities. Last year, in Toronto, Southwest Jiaotong University’s Professor Dr. CHEN Weirong presented China’s first hydrail locomotive, the “Blue Sky” at the Eighth International Hydrail Conference.

In 2013, UNCC launched a Rail Lecture Series with a series of talks by Austria’s Herbert Wancura, an engineer specializing in hydrail design. (His presentation in Neumünster will be on the application of hydrail technology to high speed trains.) Mr. Wancura has also addressed Hydrail Conferences in Istanbul (2010) and Valencia, Spain (2008).

This year the UNCC Rail Lectures have included a series by Dr. Stuart Hillmansen, head of the Traction Engineering School at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Engineering and a host of the 2012 Hydrail Conference. UNCC’s Advanced Railway Technology initiative has also been working with the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer NC, whose President—Steve Mersch—and Vice President—Jerry Shepardson—were this year’s first rail series lecturers.

The Museum is part of the North Carolina Department of Commerce. (I would love to see the Museum team-up with UNCC to organize the world’s first hydrail excursion, pulled by BNSF’s big hydrail road switcher, HH 1205!)

In June, two UNCC graduate students are headed for U. Birmingham to collaborate in the design and construction of a park-gauge hydrail locomotive to compete in the Institute of Mechanical Engineers annual Railway Challenge. A permanent park-gauge hydrail research railroad on the UNCC campus is a major part of the advanced railway technology vision.

At the 2013 Toronto hydrail conference, Herr Detlef Matthiessen, MdL, presented a keynote address. Herr Matthiessen is a Member of the Schleswig-Holstein Parliament (Landtag) and spokesman for the Working Group on Energy Policy. It was Herr Matthiessen’s vision to host the Hydrail Conference in Northern Germany this year. Christian Albrecht University in Kiel, the capital of Schleswig-Holstein, is a scientific partner of the Conference.

The non-profit International Hydrail Conference series was conceived as a means of fostering collaboration among hydrogen railway projects around the world. At the academic level, the Conferences have succeeded far beyond the initial vision.

Sadly, this academic and industry progress has escaped the notice of  the general press.

The Conference organizers hope that in Germany—where science and technology are matters of general interest even to newspaper editors—that public interest in this important new, green, mode of rail traction will at last be piqued.

Universities, railways and manufacturers interested in collaborating on hydrail projects with UNCC and U. Birmingham can reach Dr. Keith Baarson at [email protected].


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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