When Siemens presented its first hydrogen train at its railway plant in Krefeld on May 5, the biggest rival from the same company was lurking just around the corner. At the push of a button, Siemens Mobility boss Michael Peter opened a red curtain and the Mireo Plus H rolled out of the factory, accompanied by stadium music and artificial smoke. A battery-powered Mireo stood next to the hall as a quiet party guest, as if he wanted to signal to his well-respected colleague that conquering Europe’s regional train routes would not be a sure-fire success.

Both technologies can be used to make rail traffic on routes without overhead lines climate-neutral. “Around 15,000 diesel locomotives and trains are still in service in Europe,” explained Peter. By 2050 at the latest, they would have to be replaced by vehicles without CO2 emissions. Since it is not worth building an overhead line on many branch lines, battery trains or trains with hydrogen tanks and fuel cells will soon be running there.

Peter put the total market for these vehicles at 100 billion euros. At Siemens Mobility, they are therefore convinced that there is enough demand for both drives. Accordingly, the Group has designed its new Mireo regional train as a technology-neutral platform: In addition to the classic electric drive, it can also run on batteries via an overhead line – or with a hydrogen tank and fuel cell.

The federal government’s railway commissioner, Michael Theurer, was also pleased with the new hydrogen train. Because in Germany, the demand for trains with alternative drives is particularly high. Currently, only 61 percent of the roughly 33,000-kilometer route network in this country is electrified. More than a third of regional traffic is therefore handled by diesel trains. By 2030, the traffic light coalition wants to electrify 75 percent of the network. That is already a very ambitious goal, said Theurer in Krefeld. After all, the construction of new overhead lines has been sluggish for years. But even if the destination is reached, there will still be a gap of around 8,200 kilometers without traction current.

Lower Saxony therefore started an initiative before the federal government to get rid of the bubbling diesel trains. The large flat country in the north has a particularly large number of long railway lines without overhead lines. As early as 2013, the regional transport company of Lower Saxony started looking for an alternative for the 126 diesel trains in Lower Saxony’s local transport.

She found what she was looking for at the Alstom plant in Salzgitter near Braunschweig. The French train manufacturer agreed to develop a hydrogen train, funded by Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. The Coradia iLint has been in series production at Alstom since 2021. This summer it will start series operation between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven and Buxtehude – as the first hydrogen train in the world. At the turn of the year, the train will also start in the Frankfurt area.

Siemens’ Mireo Plus H, on the other hand, only has a prototype that will initially be driven on the company’s own test track in Wegberg-Wildenrath on the Lower Rhine. Siemens wants to compensate for the development deficit compared to Alstom with a more powerful train that can travel up to 160 kilometers per hour and accelerate faster. This means that the Mireo fits better into the rail traffic of the future, said Peter. Because trains would have to run faster and at shorter intervals in the coming years in order to transport more passengers.

But it is also true that Siemens initially relied on battery trains. The group has already sold more than 50 units of the battery-powered Mireo, which is already ready for series production. Battery trains can be integrated much more easily into today’s railway operations. On main routes, they can simply draw their electricity from the overhead line and charge their batteries at the same time. With the current battery technology, they can travel about 120 to 150 kilometers without a contact wire.

In Germany, where routes without overhead lines are often comparatively short, this is sufficient in most cases. In addition, battery trains can be operated much more cheaply. Because in order to obtain green hydrogen by electrolysis, a lot of green electricity is needed. The poor efficiency makes the energy source expensive. In addition, green hydrogen is currently hard to come by anywhere in the world.

In the first tenders, the states responsible for local transport have therefore always opted for battery instead of hydrogen trains – including in Schleswig-Holstein, Rhineland-Palatinate, Berlin and Brandenburg. Hydrogen railways were only used in funded pilot projects. Michael Peter nevertheless expects a market for hydrogen. “Our Mireo Plus H can travel 800 kilometers on one tank,” he said. In a shorter version, up to 1000 kilometers are even possible. For many railway companies, it is therefore more practical than a battery train. However, Siemens managers also admit behind closed doors that battery trains will probably prevail in Germany. In other European countries with longer non-electrified routes, however, the situation is different – especially if hydrogen will soon be available in larger quantities.

But first the Mireo Plus H has to prove its suitability for everyday use. From 2023 it will be tested by Deutsche Bahn on the Tübingen-Horb-Pforzheim route and in regular operation in Bavaria. H2goesRail is the name of the corresponding development project of the two companies. The rail subsidiary DB Energie will produce the hydrogen required for this directly in Tübingen by electrolysis – using green electricity from the overhead line.

It is to be stored in a mobile hydrogen trailer. From DB’s point of view, the refueling must work quickly, said the Group’s Chief Technology Officer, Daniela Gerd tom Markotten, at the world premiere of the hydrogen Mireo in Krefeld. DB has developed a new process for this. “This type of fast charging station makes the hydrogen train ready to go in 15 minutes – just as fast as with diesel.”

The Siemens engineers in Krefeld are already looking closely at rail traffic in the USA. There, diesel locomotives sometimes pull freight trains up to three kilometers long over thousands of kilometers. Mega transports that Siemens would like to handle with hydrogen locomotives in a few years.