Transport Action president Terry Johnson travelled on the Train de Charlevoix as part of a family holiday in Quebec. These are his impressions of the service and the first North American deployment of Alstom’s hydrogen-powered Coradia iLint train.
We were debating the choice between Prince Edward Island and Quebec City for a family summer holiday when the Quebec government, Alstom, the Train de Charlevoix and Harnois Énergies announced their partnership to bring the Coradia iLint hydrogen fuel-cell powered train to Canada for the first time.
The Charlevoix region is recognized by UNESCO as biosphere reserve and known for local artisanal foods as well as winter tourism including skiing, so we took the opportunity to experience the iLint first-hand and take a zero-emission ride though this spectacular region. Green Gables would have to wait.
Built between 1889 and 1918, the Charlevoix line extends 136 kilometres between Quebec City and La Malbaie, with 85 kilometres of incomparable panoramas along the St. Lawrence River. The railway curves along the foot of the cliffs, with two short tunnels. Regular passenger service on the route was discontinued in 1977.
The Train de Charlevoix tourist service was launched in 2011, after local ski resort operator Le Massif de Charlevoix acquired the line from the Quebec Railway Corporation in 2009 and began a $18 million rehabilitation of the track with stimulus funding from the Quebec and federal governments. There are now several intermediate stations, including the towns of Sainte-Anne de Beaupré and Baie-Saint-Paul, and additional stations were added to serve tourist destinations like the ski resort. Freight operation is also still possible to Clermont, where there is a lumber facility.
Although the tracks run to the Gare de Palais in Quebec City, the journey starts at the Montmorency Falls station 11 kilometers to the east, to keep the passenger trains completely separate from freight. This allows operation with lighter European equipment. The line’s regular trains are three former DB Class 628.1 diesel multiple units. Alstom’s Coradia iLint train, which was shipped over from Europe earlier this year, commenced service in Quebec on June 17, 2023.
The round trip to Baie-Saint-Paul takes two and a half hours in each direction, with the schedule providing around three hours to explore the town, including its art galleries and restaurants.
On the morning of our departure, there was a large crowd at the Montmorency Falls station waiting to board the Train de Charlevoix services, with two trains using the line’s regular diesel equipment departing first for La Malbaie and Baie-Saint-Paul, once a wayward fisherman had been shooed off the railway bridge over the river.
Following the regular departures, iLint train was then pulled up the station for boarding, running almost silently apart from the obligatory warning bell. Based on the Coradia Lint family of trains popular for regional and commuter services in Europe, the iLint was developed with support from the German government and unveiled at InnoTrans in 2016. The train uses fuel cells supplied by Accelera, a division of Cummins created following the acquisition of Ontario-based Hydrogenix, to generate electricity from compressed hydrogen, which is this case is green hydrogen produced by Harnois Énergies at its Quebec City site. The fuel cell system provides power to a battery bank, which can also store energy recovered by the train’s traction motors during braking. The system provides the train with a range of up to 1,000 km between refueling.
Track speed is limited to 50 km/h (30 mph), so the train was not able show off its 140 km/h top speed capability, but ran smoothly even over the jointed track. The first section of the trip from Montmorency Falls to Sainte-Anne de Beaupré runs alongside the main road and requires stops for grade crossing protection at some of the intersections. Beyond Sainte-Anne de Beaupré, the road turns inland. Only passengers on the trains get experience the best of the scenery.
The train is not level-floored throughout, instead the middle section and doors of each car are lowered for accessible boarding at European platform height. Mobile steps were used to board the train at Montmorency Falls, but the other stations on the route all have boardwalk platforms at appropriate height, and bridge plates for wheelchair boarding. There are steps up to seating areas at each end of the car, and the two cars are coupled by a wide flexible gangway providing visibility and ease of circulation throughout the train.
There are design accents on board to show off the zero-emission nature of the train, including a hydrogen and water molecule pattern on the seat upholstery and use of wood for the tray tables and armrests, although much of the interior uses composites like any other modern train.
The train was not reconfigured internally for this deployment, so the seating is still in a high-density commuter configuration, rather than aligned with windows, and the seatbacks are higher than on the line’s usual equipment, so visibility is not quite as good. There are also power sockets between the seats, but these are European 230V/50Hz sockets, so not useable unless you happen to be carrying a travel adapter.
The commuter configuration did have one major advantage: The low-floor middle section of the first car was completely open, designed for standing commuters, with lateral tip-up seats down both sides which were not sold, so the space could therefore be used to stand and look out of the massive windows to enjoy and photograph the scenery. The second car has two accessible spaces and the accessible washroom, which take up much of the lower section, plus space for bicycles. The train had been oriented to place the washroom on the landward side so the passage alongside it could also be used for viewing.
A tiny “first class” compartment at one end of the train, with only six seats in 2+1 configuration, was used for crew, including a technician travelling with the train. The doors between the passenger compartment and the cabs at either end are glazed, so it’s also possible to get a glimpse of the view ahead.
The Train de Charlevoix tickets are sold online and must be booked for a particular departure. Tickets are provided as a QR code that can be displayed on a mobile phone or printed. Fares between Montmorency Falls and Baie-Saint-Paul start at $99 for adults and $69 for children plus tax for the round trip. To continue to La Malbaie requires a second fare, and a supplement of $10 per person applies to seating on the river side of the train. A variety of activity packages are also offered with local tourism partners.
Although the side of the train passengers are seated on depends on the fare class purchased, seating is unassigned unless travelling as a group of four or more, in which case the crew will label a set of seats to ensure the party is seated together.
The website advertises and on-board menu of snacks and drinks, including a “Charlevoix Tasting for Two” of local cold cuts, cheeses, sweets, and drinks from the local winery and microbrewery that can be pre-booked for $70 plus tax. Unfortunately, on our train the on-board service was not available, and pre-booked tasting experiences with local beverages were cancelled without notice, leaving several parties disappointed and hungry. The company later provided a refund, but no explanation for this fiasco. The tastings without alcohol for our children were provided in paper bags, but couldn’t easily be enjoyed on the train due to robust packaging and lack of tables at the four-seat bays on the iLint. We shared the local delicacies after the trip, once we had obtained fresh bread and local beer.
We traveled to Quebec City by train, experiencing VIA Rail’s the new Venture trains between Montreal and Quebec City. Passengers making the journey this year might also get a final chance to experience a Renaissance set in the corridor before they are all replaced by the new fleet.
There is no shuttle bus to the Montmorency Falls station from the Gare de Palais or downtown Quebec City at the time of writing, although one was provided in the past, so the best way to reach the station by public transport is to take the Metrobus 800 service, which stops at the top of the falls, and use the cable car, which is quite expensive, or take the stairs down through the park – about 490 steps with views of the falls. There is substantial mist from the falls, so prepare to descend slowly, and wear appropriate wet weather clothing for this.
The town of Baie-Saint-Paul was suffering from severe traffic congestion on the day of our trip, partly due to a summer festival. The historic streets are narrow, and parking is limited, so arriving by public transport is clearly the better option. As an alternative to taking the train, or to take the train in only one direction, motorcoach service to the Charlevoix region is operated by Intercar, departing from the bus terminal at the Gare de Palais where connections are also available to Orleans Express and other bus lines throughout Quebec.
I was impressed by Alstom’s accomplishment with the Coradia iLint and would look forward to travelling on a similar train for smooth and emission-free travel on regional rail and commuter routes. For longer-term tourist service or for deployment on scenic remote-service routes, seating would ideally be reconfigured to better align with windows, and galley facilities added to support the expected level of onboard service.
Hydrogen trains are now mature technology, deployed in several European jurisdictions, including models from Siemens and Stadler as well as Alstom’s iLint. Stadler will deliver a two-car hydrogen train to California’s San Bernardino County in 2024, with a firm order from CalTrans for four trains and options for up to 25 more signed at InnoTrans in 2022.
The province of Quebec, by becoming the first jurisdiction in Canada to run a train powered by green hydrogen, hopes to both demonstrate low-carbon economy leadership and support the development of a hydrogen fuel ecosystem. Canada is already a significant producer and exporter of hydrogen technologies, with Accelera’s operations in Ontario and BC-based Ballard Power Systems being industry leaders.
However, the economics of hydrogen trains as a zero-emission travel system must be weighed against the alternatives, and fully zero-emission operation depends on an affordable supply of clean hydrogen. Where train services are frequent, installing and maintaining overhead electrification may be more cost-effective, and on shorter branch-line routes where partial electrification already exists or charging stops can be made where the branch line connects with an electrified mainline, a battery-only system has lower lifecycle costs.
Several railways in Germany that were early adopters of hydrogen are now turning in the direction of batteries because their trains never need to be more than 100 km away from electrification. That range is easily within the capabilities of batteries, whereas hydrogen can provide a range of up to 1,000 km between fueling stops, which is more likely to be needed in North America.
The version of Alstom’s train designed to European standards can currently be deployed in Canada only where time separation from freight operations is possible. This is the case with the Charlevoix route and with Ottawa’s Trillium Line, where a diesel version of the Alstom Lint was used before the extension project and is to be deployed on the airport spur when the line reopens. Time separation may also be possible on Vancouver Island, where the round-trip distance of almost 600 km is suited to hydrogen.
For wider use in North America, Alstom would have to redesign the train to meet the FRA’s crashworthiness standards, using the alternative compliance pathway for modern passenger trains with Crash Energy Management features. With the resurgence in interest in passenger rail as a solution to traffic congestion and emission reduction goals by cities, states, and provinces, including Alberta’s renewed interest in passenger rail, is it possible that Alstom will see a large enough market opportunity for battery, hydrogen, and electric variants of a North American regional and commuter multiple-unit platform, similar to the X’Trapolis cars recently ordered by Connecticut, to make such an investment worthwhile.