The Mooresville, NC Hydrail Initiative

A small-town environmental transit project has reached around the world

By: Stan Thompson

In 2003, Bill Thunberg - then President of the Mooresville South Iredell Chamber of Commerce in Mooresville, NC and later a two-term Mayor of Mooresville - asked a recently retired planner/futurist from the local area to head the Mooresville/South Iredell Chamber's Transportation Committee. As the new leader of this Committee, Stan Thompson brought his experience with environmental concerns, connections with organizations such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, and a long-held affinity and family history with the industry of railroads.

As part of the Greater Charlotte area, the priorities of the Mooresville Chamber's Committee included three complementary goals: (1) to help Greater Charlotte meet federal air quality standards, (2) to find innovative funding sources and technology for a commuter rail line proposed for development on existing track from Charlotte to Mooresville, and (3) to position Mooresville to attract new employers and create new jobs connected to the Hydrogen Economy.

Thunberg and Thompson sought input from Jim Bowman, a design engineer at Ingersoll-Rand. Together the three came up with the idea to pioneer hydrogen railway technology on the anticipated Mooresville-Charlotte line. They shared the idea with Engineering Dean, Dr. Robert Johnson at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who put them in touch with three of the earliest academic pioneers addressing hydrogen railways, Dr. Alistair Miller at Atomic Energy of Canada, and Dr. Max Wyman and Dr. Michael Kuby.

Using the internet and e-mail, Thompson was soon in touch with academics around the world who were developing or researching hydrogen railway technology. Soon Gary Ritter, a colleague author with Thompson and a Senior Engineer at the US Department of Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, arranged for a presentation of Mooresville's hydrogen fuel cell commuter rail concept at the Volpe Center to military planners and others working on a project that eventually engaged the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and produced the historic hydrogen hybrid switch engine they placed in service on June 29, 2009.

In 2004, Dr. Nejat Veziroglou at the University of Miami, Florida, invited Thompson to publish an informal article on Mooresville's fuel cell commuter rail vision in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. Thompson named the article, "The Mooresville Hydrail Initiative," coining the word that has become the general inclusive term of art for hydrogen-powered rail-based technology of all descriptions - HYDRAIL.

Thompson and Bowman had made a few inquiries with rail equipment manufacturers to recruit one who would introduce hydrail on the Mooresville-Charlotte line owned by Norfolk Southern Railway. Then Thompson saw a potential shortcut: if pioneers in hydrail from around the world could be brought together and compare progress, then state-of-the-art would move ahead much faster.

Through the North Carolina State Energy Office, Thompson and the Mooresville Initiative connected with Jason Hoyle of the Appalachian Energy Center at Appalachian State University. This collaboration led to Charlotte playing host to presentations from Canada, Japan, and Denmark at the First International Hydrail Conference in mid-2005. The US Department of Energy's Savannah River Nation Laboratory; US Department Transportation; the University of Arizona; the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; the NC Department of Transportation, the NC State Energy Office; The Charlotte Area Transit System; the Centralina Council of Governments, Nuvera Fuel Cells and Bill Thunberg (as Mayor of Mooresville) also gave presentations.

Since its launch in Charlotte, the International Hydrail Conference (IHC) has become an annual event held around the world at locations, including Herning, Denmark; Valencia, Spain; and Istanbul, Turkey. Participants and presenters have come from Denmark, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Germany, and the U.S., among other places.

Sadly, the 2011 Hydrail Conference, which South Korea's Railway Technical Research Institute had generously offered to host, could not be held due to the slumping world economy limiting the ability of many presenters to travel. The series will resume however, in 2012 at the University of Birmingham, UK where one of the world's first two doctoral candidates focused on hydrogen railway technology is located.

This is a much-abbreviated history of how a small-town environmental project has grown to involve governments, universities and industries from some fifteen countries, the European Union, and the United Nations, and how an innovative vision can bring together threads of knowledge and pull an innovative technology from the future into the present.

The hydrail commuter line from Mooresville to Charlotte is still far from being realized. But given the world's involvement so far, its advocates are staying the course. Google's search engine has found over 100,000 hydrail references at times. This site is visited by 50 to 60 countries every month, downloading over two gigabytes of information. The US, China and Taiwan have hydrail locomotives or trains on the track. Spain is poised to be next.