Training trains to run on natural gas

The transformation of steam-powered locomotives to diesel-driven freight engines was achieved in just 20 years, thanks to developments by industry pioneers including GE. Today, another revolution may be underway as railroad companies consider the economic advantages of locomotives powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).

A report released by the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) in April notes that LNG-powered locomotives could put a dent in railroad fuel bills. In 2012, the country’s seven major railroads consumed more than US$11.5-billion in diesel fuel, representing an average of 23% of total operating expenses.

If LNG prices remain competitive to diesel through 2040, the report argues, LNG locomotives purchased in 2020 “could accrue significant fuel cost savings.” Although LNG models might cost 50% more than their diesel counterparts, 20 years of fuel savings would more than justify their capital cost.

Possible locomotive designs include high-pressure systems in which the engine operates on LNG for a majority of the time, using diesel for ignition, or low-pressure systems in which engines can operate entirely on either LNG or diesel.

In Canada, CN conducted a pilot program from 2012 to 2013 with two LNG-fuelled locomotives on a 480-kilometre secondary rail line between Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alta. The 3,000-horsepower diesel locomotives were paired with an LNG fuel tender car and used to pull high-tonnage trains over an undulating landscape.

Mark Hallman, CN’s director, communications and public affairs, says that the early-stage research is providing valuable information on long-term opportunities for LNG.

“CN continues to work with other parties, including specialized manufacturers, locomotive builders, fuel suppliers and regulatory agencies on a project to develop a state-of-the art natural gas railway engine for locomotives and a standardized railway fuel tender,” he says.

GE Transportation is one of the companies building locomotive prototypes designed to operate on both LNG and diesel off the shelf. In the meantime, it’s offering the benefits of LNG to existing GE Evolution Series locomotives. The NextFuel Natural Gas Retrofit Kit converts these locomotives to operate on as much as 80% natural gas or 100% diesel, reducing fuel costs by up to half and increasing haul distances.

The EIA report also cautions that “switching from diesel fuel to LNG would require a new delivery infrastructure for locomotive fuel.” GE’s MicroLNG aims to fill that gap with a system that can liquefy natural gas at any point along a gas distribution network, fuelling vehicles — including locomotives — even in remote locations

GE’s chief executive officer, Jeffrey Immelt, has said that the “age of natural gas is upon us.” Earlier this year, he told audiences at the Bloomberg Link Energy 2020 summit in Washington that the company is committed to investing in natural gas opportunities in the railroad sector and other industries. While focusing on economic advantages, he also noted that natural gas will significantly reduce emissions associated with diesel.

“This is an economic story that has environmental impact,” says Immelt.

Financial Post

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