Letter to the editor

Sir - Professor Roger Kemp's review of fuel cells (RG 8.05 p493) makes the bold assertion that hydrogen power offers no alternative to main line electrification. In a very fast-changing and uncertain environment, and one where the USA and East Asia are making new power technologies a priority for development, I think a little caution may be in order before ruling anything out completely.

In addition to taxes and death there is now a third certainty: energy prices are going up. Every indication is that demand and supply are not matched; the result is rising costs. The UK rail industry is not exempt from this. I estimate industry energy costs will be some £50m greater this year, a rise of 25%.

Electrification has a major part to play but there remain very significant challenges to improve overall system efficiency and bring both installation and maintenance costs down. This is not entirely the industry's problem, but electrification must demonstrate that it can play a part in an energy-efficient future.

But to return to fuel cells, the motor industry is where most of the work is going on. Much of the railways' existing non-electric power technology is derived from the motor industry. I have no doubt that under the stimulation to improve energy consumption and reduce emissions, the pace of development will continue to be rapid. I do not think it is sensible for our industry to ignore this.

Hydrogen power is at the stage of development where there are hundreds of variants, thousands of problems and no clear winner. Prof Kemp's description of the current state of the technology is fine (although I cannot understand how a fuel cell would absorb braking energy) but what he does not acknowledge sufficiently is that solutions to the problems he identifies are being tackled energetically. Importantly, he makes no mention of hybrid solutions that would change many of his basic calculations as to weight, power outputs and fuel consumption.

The Railway Forum remains of the opinion that hydrogen technology will continue to develop rapidly with the strongest lead being taken by the motor industry. We in the railway industry need to be aware of developments and capitalise on them if we see they can be of advantage to the industry. It is not an issue of either main line electrification or hydrogen but ensuring that we choose the right mix for the future.

Adrian Lyons
Director-General, The Railway Forum
London, UK