Soaring peaks, glistening glaciers and lush pastures – that’s why people flock to Tyrol’s Zillertal. And flock they do, in droves. With more than 4.5 million overnight stays every year, the valley 40 km east of Innsbruck is Tyrol’s most important tourist destination, accounting for over 16% of total visitor numbers in the Bundesland.

The region thus has ample experience balancing the demands of mass tourism and preserving and protecting the nature that draws the visitors in the first place. And now it aims to take responsibility in the fight against climate change: The Zillertal Railway will be the world’s first narrow-gauge railway to run on hydrogen.

“Yes, we are breaking new ground with the conversion of the Zillertal Railway from diesel to hydrogen,” said Franz Hörl, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Zillertaler Verkehrsbetriebe (ZVB). “But anyone who wants to play a role in the future must go new ways and turn visions into reality.”

Three Years to Go

If everything goes according to plan, regular operation is to start as early as 2022. The timetable up to that point is ambitious. From testing a prototype to tendering the railcars and setting up the hydrogen production plant, a lot still has to happen.

The Zillertal Railway is an independently operated 32-km track running along the valley of the river Ziller, between Jenbach and Mayrhofen. It was originally opened on July 31, 1902, and has become somewhat of a destination for train enthusiasts due to its small track gauge and its occasional use of steam engines. The railway transports over 2.9 million passengers annually including commuters and tourists. Most of the passenger trains these days, however, are diesel-run locomotives and railcars, consuming up to 800,000 liters of fuel – almost 30 truck tankers – per year. That adds up to annual CO2 emissions of 2,160 tons.

The choice was between switching to classical electrical overhead lines or hydrogen-electric operation. And given the Zillertal’s unique position in the midst of the Alps, the choice was made for the latter. “Thirty percent of the hydropower generated in Tyrol comes from the Zillertal. We have nine hydropower plants and five reservoirs,” explained deputy regional governor of Tyrol, Josef Geissler.

Hydrogen For Future

Hydrogen or H2 is a clean fuel generated by a process called electrolysis with water and electricity. The new hydrogen train will require 1.8 times more energy than a classic overhead electrical line – but since hydrogen production can take place at off-peak times and is 100% clean, the project still makes both economic and environmental sense. In fact, every hydrogen train kilometer will be six percent cheaper than the classic alternative. And once set up and running, diesel buses in the region could also be switched to hydrogen as fuel over time.

The new hydrogen railway, including the necessary infrastructure, will require an investment of around €80 million upfront. The vehicles have a technical service life of 30 years; by 2040, the ZVB expects passenger numbers will have increased to 4.9 million annually. The project initiators also hope for a positive signaling effect, kicking off or inspiring other green mobility projects.

In these times of Fridays for Future, it may be small places like the Zillertal that point the way to a sustainable future that can actually preserve those glistening glaciers and lush pastures for a long time to come.

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