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Green traction to raise doubts for US railway business

24 May 2024
Reading time ~ 3 min
The battery-powered FLXdrive locomotive from Wabtec
The battery-powered FLXdrive locomotive from Wabtec. David Lassen/Trains
Belov Sergey, Editor-in-Chief, ROLLINGSTOCK Agency
Reading time ~ 3 min
Savenkova Ekaterina, Editorial Contributor to International Projects of ROLLINGSTOCK Agency

USA: The Wall Street Journal has a great article on the prospects and limitations of alternative traction for diesel locomotives.

US rail operators are under regulatory pressure, according to the media reports. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed states to impose more stringent controls on diesel locomotives, and California has gone further by banning diesel vehicles after 2035. These decisions follow the US National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonisation. A WSJ reporter discussed widely known diesel alternatives – batteries, biofuel, and hydrogen –  with market players.

US manufacturers, Wabtec and Progress Rail, have been developing battery and hydrogen vehicles for several years, operators are looking at converting old locomotives and studying biofuels.

The proliferation of batteries is hampered by their low power compared to diesel locomotives and by the time it takes to recharge them. “Diesel locomotives can be fuelled in 20–30 minutes today, compared to several hours of charging time, which affects operational viability”, says a representative of BNSF, one of the major operators. Iron Senergy, a private energy company, that uses three locomotives to transport coal, says that when its fleet becomes 100% battery-powered, any interruption in the charging system would bring its industrial vehicles to a complete halt.

With reference to MxV Rail, a rail consultancy, WSJ asserts that switching to biofuels is the fastest way to reduce emissions, as it requires only a minor modification to a diesel engine. However, the supply of biofuels loses out to diesel in terms of reliability due to limited access to raw materials such as vegetable oils and fats, and there is a high proportion of subsidies in the price. It is important to note that the primary customers for biodiesel are aviation companies, where the issue of reducing emissions is of even greater concern.

Hydrogen traction is seen in a much more positive light. With zero emissions, it is comparable to, and only slightly inferior to, diesel in terms of key traction characteristics and range. However, according to the American Association of Railways, the lack of a comprehensive national system for distributing, transporting, storing and refuelling hydrogen, not only for rolling stock but for the industry as a whole, is a significant barrier to its widespread use.

The WSJ article is summarised by Jim Vena, CEO of Union Pacific, who believes that the rail industry should take a closer look at the carbon footprint created by the expanding infrastructure of these green solutions, as it could lead to even greater emissions.

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