Japan's biggest rail company will soon test what it says will be the world's first train to use fuel cells, following the lead of the country's automakers in rolling out cleaner, more efficient transportation.
Pollution-free fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, producing only water vapor as exhaust.
East Japan Railways Co., which serves the congested Tokyo area and carries 16 million passengers a day, will start test runs of the NE Train, or New Energy Train, in July with the aim of operating it on regular tracks by the middle of next year.
The initial train will consist of a single car powered by electric batteries and capable of traveling at up to 60 mph. The train is essentially a hybrid vehicle, with a diesel-run generator providing most of the electricity. Two 65-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cells will chip in about a third.
It should also be quieter than conventional trains.
"It's the first time this technology has been used in railway cars," company spokesman Akira Mori said Friday. "But it's still too soon to talk about when it will start carrying paying passengers."
JR East, as the Tokyo-based company is also known, estimates the NE Train will consume about 20 percent less energy than traditional trains. The company has cut overall energy consumption by 13 percent since 1990, despite rising traffic volumes.
The NE Train's fuel efficiency will be aided by batteries that recharge every time the train brakes.
Similar technology has scored a big hit for Japanese carmakers, which are catering to surging global interest in hybrid cars.
JR East's new trains are envisioned for use in remote areas where there are no overhead power lines.
As with automobiles, however, hydrogen-powered trains will need to overcome a current lack of fueling stations, which would be needed to make long-distance travel practical.
And producing hydrogen is still costly and not always energy efficient.