On Ontario's Reinventing the Wheel

Here’s a recent column that appeared in the June 19th issue of the Kitchener Post, in response to reports that the Ontario government was exploring hydrogen-powered commuter trains:

When Ontario’s Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca announced the province would look at equipping its GO commuter trains with hydrogen fuel cells, I had a disturbing sense of deja-vu.

Don’t get me wrong, I think hydrogen-fuel-cell powered vehicles are intriguing. Like normal electric cars, they’re run by an electric motor. Unlike normal electric cars, the power for that motor comes not from a battery, but from a hydrogen fuel cell, which generates electricity on the spot by combining hydrogen with oxygen.

While normal electric cars are recharged by plugging to a power source, hydrogen fuel cell cars need to be refueled with more hydrogen. That’s good for cars. Hydrogen fuel cells could solve the problem of replacing a fuel source as powerful and as portable as gasoline. But why put one on a train?

Cars drivers need a portable fuel source because you never know where you might need to drive one. But we know exactly where a train is going to go.

If we want to power a train with electricity, we don’t need the complications of producing it on the fly with a fuel cell. We have tried and true technologies to deliver electricity either through overhead wires or a third rail next to the tracks.

The solution for electrifying Ontario’s commuter rail network is easy. It’s been around for over a century. It could be built tomorrow if the province were willing to pay for it.

Hydrogen power, for all of its possibilities, is still a concept being explored. The first prototypes for hydrogen-powered trains are only now being built. It could be years before Ontario’s trains become hydrogen-powered, but a simpler solution exists today.

Ontarian governments, of various stripes, have had an unfortunate tendency these past decades of looking past the obvious, old-school solutions for concepts that are bold and new and untested.

In the early 1970s, Toronto and Ontario realized that subway construction was becoming prohibitively expensive, and the high-density neighbourhoods that were best served by subways were by and large served. What could be built instead to provide rapid transit into the lower density suburbs at less cost?

The Toronto Transit Commission had a solution in hand: put streetcars on private rights-of-way, operating at high speeds. The technology was tried and true, could carry the loads, and was considerably cheaper than subway construction.

Unfortunately, at the time, Ontario Premier Bill Davis wanted Ontario to become an industry leader in high tech public transportation vehicles. His crown corporation, the Urban Transportation Development Corporation, tried to build a maglev test-track at the Canadian National Exhibition before the West German partners pulled out.

Other cities that turned to high-speed streetcars, including Calgary, Portland and Denver, helped lead North America’s LRT renaissance.

Ontario created an Intermediate Capacity Transit System instead that used linear induction to haul its trains. This proved to be more expensive and less flexible. ICTS soured Toronto against building anything other than expensive subways for rapid transit.

By looking at hydrogen power for its future trains, Ontario risks wasting time again trying to reinvent the wheel.

Other cities know the benefits of electrifying their commuter rail lines. Their trains accelerate faster and are more energy efficient. There is a large market for electric trains and infrastructure thanks to the work of New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and other cities.

We know what needs to be built, and we want to build it sooner rather than later. If the province really wants electric trains, it only needs to pay for them.

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