Railways are testing battery-powered trains. Cost is a barrier


Colossal freight locomotives are part of the American landscape, but their 4,400 horsepower engines collectively consume 3.5 billion gallons of diesel per year, at a time when railroads and other fossil fuel users face challenges. pressure to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

With little fanfare, however, the industry began to operate locomotives that ran on stored electricity, heading for a future in which toy stores were not the only source of battery-powered trains. U.S. passenger lines could also be transformed by technology, though California rail officials say it won’t work for the state’s bullet train.

In a recently completed test, the BNSF ran a freight train from Barstow to Stockton with an experimental battery locomotive, paired with two diesel locomotives, and achieved an 11% reduction in fuel consumption, as well as similar reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxides, small particles and greenhouse gases. A future improved operational version is expected to improve fuel efficiency by 30%.

The test was a “defining moment for rail freight“, accelerating the industry towards possible zero-emission locomotives, said Eric Gebhardt, chief technology officer at Wabtec, who developed the system at his research center near of Lake Erie in northern Pennsylvania.

Hydrogen fuel cell and battery powered trains are among the rail industry‘s only viable options for reducing greenhouse gases. Each battery-powered locomotive that replaces a diesel will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 3,000 tonnes per year, Wabtec estimates.

But they are unlikely to be able to replace diesel powered trains quickly. U.S. freight railroads are teeming with surplus locomotives, and no one can predict what battery-powered systems will cost, compared to existing $ 3 million diesels.

“Battery-powered locomotives are achievable,” said Michael Iden, a consultant who long served as Union Pacific’s director of locomotive engineering. Iden compares Wabtec’s feat to the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight: a proof of concept ready to be developed. They will soon be tested at ports and train stations in California, he noted.

That said, “Estimating the cost of commercially available battery-powered locomotives is, in my opinion, predicting the price of several fully-serviced, four-bedroom, three-car garages with in-ground pools on Mars,” Iden said. “One day such houses could exist on Mars, but it is far away.”

Much will depend on the degree to which state and federal regulators pressurize the railways to clean up their emissions. Here in California, the state’s Air Resources Board wants railways to reduce or even eliminate diesels over the next 14 years.

The transportation sector is responsible for 29% of US greenhouse gas emissions. In this category, the rail industry, which carries 40% of long-haul freight, accounts for just 2%, according to data from the US Environmental Protection Agency. But freight trains as well as trucks expose many populated urban corridors, including areas near the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, to soot and pollution.

“We can do more,” said Ian Jefferies, President of Assn. of American Railroads, citing the potential of battery-powered trains. “It is good business to reduce emissions and reduce fuel consumption and it reflects the goals of the company.” At the same time, Jefferies and his organization oppose proposed regulations to phase out diesels, saying, “It doesn’t make sense.

Severin Borenstein, an energy expert and professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said the railways are unlikely to get a free pass on climate change issues.

“The fact that railways are already the most efficient source of transportation is great, but we all need to reduce greenhouse gases,” he said. “Railways are a major source of greenhouse gases.

In addition to freight, battery and fuel cell trains promise to modernize U.S. passenger rail transportation, which Usually operates on rails owned by freight railways, such as BNSF and Union Pacific. These companies oppose overhead power lines, such as those that power the urban light rail, because of the potential interference with freight operations. Batteries and fuel cell locomotives eliminate this potential conflict.

In San Bernardino, the county transportation authority awaits delivery of a hydrogen fuel cell passenger train, which will enter service by 2024 on the Metrolink commuter train system. The train is being developed in Switzerland by Stadler, which also manufactures a line of high-speed trains that run on wires.

In addition to reducing pollution, the Stadler train can speed up and slow down faster than a diesel, reducing journey times – much like electric vehicles that mimic muscle cars of the 1960s – and is likely to appeal to cyclists. with strong environmental convictions.

“We are at the start of a period of transition and there is a lot of movement in technology,” said Guido Vogel, chief engineering officer at Stadler. “There is a political push to move away from diesel propulsion.”

The US rail industry has made key transformations in the past, moving from wood to charcoal and from coal to petroleum, before its current reliance on diesel. Today, it operates what is considered the most efficient freight system in the world.

Around 23,000 locomotives crisscross the country’s rail network every day. Half of them operate in California. Even though they’re about four times more fuel efficient than large drill trucks – in terms of ton-miles hauled – they burn about a gallon of diesel every 2,000 feet.

Add it all up, and that annual use of 3.5 billion gallons of diesel would fill a 10-foot-deep, 25-foot-wide river from Los Angeles to Phoenix.

The California Air Resources Board, which helped fund the Wabtec test, believes trains are too great a source of greenhouse gases to escape new regulations.

Air regulators began cracking down on freight railways, especially BNSF and Union Pacific, in 1998, when they signed a voluntary pact requiring the use of new diesel engines that produce less fuel. pollution. But the deal committed the railways to use even newer generations of diesel engines. Today, the two railroads operate only 472 of the most modern systems, known as Tier 4 diesel, out of the 11,217 they operate in California at any given time, according to an annual report to the ‘Air Board.

“There is nothing forcing them to get rid of their Tier 0 locomotives,” said Ajay Mangat, supervisor of the Air Board’s cargo systems section.

Air council staff are preparing complex regulations to phase out emissions from railways by 2035, although this depends on technical feasibility, he said. The proposal will go to the air council for a vote next year.

Jefferies, the head of the railroad association, said the proposed regulations ignore a voluntary 70% reduction in California’s emissions since 2005. Specifically, the association says the air board has no legal jurisdiction because railways are subject only to federal regulation, a long-standing right. .

Even if the air council fails to impose strict regulations, railways, like other industries, are under pressure from several directions: shareholders, customers, employees and advocacy groups.

In Japan, Germany, the UK and the US, around half a dozen railway equipment manufacturers are developing systems that would run trains on batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, according to a report by industry research.

Wabtec’s Gebhardt said the initial cost of a battery-powered locomotive will be higher than a traditional diesel, but fuel costs with electric charging will be lower. Since existing locomotives use diesel engines to generate power which drives electric traction motors, only the generation of electricity needs to be addressed.

“It makes economic sense with batteries improving exponentially,” Gebhardt said.

In the California test, the batteries recharge each time the train slows to a stop, which is common along freight routes. The Wabtec train recharged its batteries, through regenerative braking, on the steep 4,000-foot descent from Tehachapi Pass to the San Joaquin Valley, for example.

Another battery-powered locomotive will anchor a Pacific Harbor Line demonstration project at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The 3,200 horsepower locomotive, manufactured by Progress Rail, a unit of Caterpillar, can haul cars around the harbor for 24 hours on a single charge. Union Pacific has just purchased a battery-powered locomotive for use at one of its marshalling yards in California as well.

Carrie Schindler, director of transit and rail programs for the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, said her two-car Stadler train will be put into service on a new nine-mile line between San Bernardino and Redlands, making 16 round trips. returns per day. at 79 mph.

An electric train is more energy efficient than an electric car, per passenger, said Vogel, Stadler’s chief engineering officer.

Schindler said the $ 23 million program for technology development and trainsets will allow significant reductions in emissions without the huge cost of building high-voltage overhead lines. The Caltrain commuter system between San Jose and San Francisco pays $ 2 billion for just 50 miles of overhead cables.

At the moment, it seems unlikely that the California Bullet Train Authority will adopt the technology. Asked about this at a recent legislative hearing, Chief Executive Officer Brian Kelly said the proposed wireless trains would not meet the 220mph speed mandate, which is enshrined in law. The rail authority is in the process of signing a contract this year for a hard-wired system and related trains, although it said the authority will monitor battery technology.

The railway authority’s plans were brought up in recent negotiations with the Legislature for additional funding, raising concerns over whether the high-speed train does not consider the potential of breakthrough technology. Legislative leaders left without any deal to appropriate more money, according to a person who is familiar with the closed-door talks but was not authorized to speak publicly.


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