Imagine a network of trains that only emit water. That’s the goal of the International Hydrail Conference, which is taking place in Mooresville this week.
“Hydrail is to diesel as diesel was to steam,” the conference’s website reads.
The conference attempts to promote applications of hydrogen-powered rail transportation, largely because of its environmental benefits.
“This is literally a matter of life and death,” conference co-founder and Mooresville native Stan Thompson said. “People are going to die because (environmentally-friendly transportation) has taken so long to figure out.”
Thompson, whose parents died of lung cancer, alluded to the deadly pollution in India and China as reasons why hydrail technology must be implemented as quickly as possible, even though he knows widespread implementation is still years away at best.
The conference, which is sponsored by Appalachian State University, has been held in Denmark, Turkey and Germany in its ten years of existence. The 2015 conference is the third one held in North Carolina but the first one held in Thompson’s home town.
Charlotte Mayoral candidate Jennifer Roberts was the first speaker.
Roberts pledged her support to implementation of hydrail in Charlotte, assuming the technology continues to advance.
“We want the Charlotte region to be the first in the U.S. to employ hydrail, if it all comes together,” Roberts said.
She admitted that it is unclear when local implementation of hydrail would become feasible.
“We know that’s where the future is. It might be 40, 50 years, but we have to start planning now,” Roberts said. “Whether it makes sense dollar-wise is something that will take years to look through.”
Norfolk Southern Railroad senior engineer Gibson Barbee spoke skeptically about immediate uses of the technology and spoke highly of his company’s current diesel engines.
He said it is possible that hydrail technology would eventually be implemented for his company’s shorter lines but that it doesn’t seem to have the power to haul freight cars long distances.
“They would be energy-limited,” Barbee said. “I don’t think the fuel cells can provide nearly that power.”
Some hydrogen-powered fuel cells are being paired with battery systems to power streetcars. Norfolk Southern does have a battery-powered train, but Barbee said cost efficiency is the main barrier.
“Batteries are not cost effective against diesel or natural gas today and adding the fuel cell reduces their cost effectiveness,” Barbee said.
Early implementations of hydrail technology are underway in Aruba, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and China.
Brad Read, president of the company responsible for the Aruba and UAE projects, was in town from California to speak.
Read said public-private partnerships are the quickest way to get the technology implemented.
“That is why all of our products are overseas where public-private partnerships are very well established and funding is easy to acquire,” Read said.
Read called Charlotte’s imminent implementation of streetcars that use overhead wires a “disappointment,” as better options are now available. That project has cost Charlotte $37 million.
Read has said that implementing his company’s system costs about half as much money per mile, though his company’s cars cost anywhere from $1.4 million to $3 million.
Steimer: (704) 358-5085