America’s railroads: Conservers of energy, friends of the environment

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

You might remember the TV commercial: A single locomotive pulling doublestacked containers through a pastoral landscape, a logjam of trucks and autos on the adjacent roadway, everything moving uncharacteristically slow, but the message conveyed with undeniable clarity: Trains move goods more efficiently than trucks.

That same scenario is played out every day in countless locations: A mile-and-a-half-long train carrying more than 200 trailers and containers, making 60 mph or better across the wide open spaces, out-performing truckers on the nearby interstate who are moving freight trailers one, two, maybe three at a time. Or a throng of rush-hour motorists, six lanes wide, inching forward at a stop-and-go crawl in suburban Southern California. They can only watch as other commuters whisk by on a train that’s L.A.-bound at close to 90 mph.

If those visuals don’t grab your attention, check out these numbers. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, freight that moves by rail instead of highway is estimated to reduce emissions by two-thirds. If just 10% of the long-haul freight currently moving by truck could be switched to rail, it would eliminate more than 12 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. And while railroads handle roughly 40% of the revenue ton-miles of freight hauled in the U.S., they produce only 2.4% of the nation’s transportation-related emissions. As for fuel efficiency, the U.S. Department of Energy says each ton-mile moved on a Class I burns less than one-tenth the number of BTUs it takes to move the same ton-mile by truck.

Cleaning the air by clearing the roads

Railroads are the only practical choice when it comes to fast, cost-effective, overland movement of bulk commodities like grain or coal. The products of everyday life, from appliances and automobiles to building materials and toys, travel with more fuel efficiency by rail than by road. Trains have even become the preferred method for mass shipment of solid waste. And they’re moving stuff that contributes to cleaner energy, be it grains for biofuel or blade and tower assemblies for windmill generators.

But there may be no better way to prove a train’s environmental advantage over trucks than to reach the public right where they live, in their wallets, at their dinner tables. The recent development of dedicated, expedited perishables service has made railroads competitive once again in a niche where trucks have typically ruled. In partnership with Union Pacific, Railex runs two refrigerated trainloads of fruits, vegetables, and other food products eastward each week from warehouses in Wallula, Wash., and Delano, Calif. UP hustles these trains to Chicago, then CSX makes final delivery to a distribution center in Rotterdam, N.Y. Railex calculates it has taken more than 121,000 trucks off the road, reduced carbon emissions by more than one million metric tons, and saved more than 54 million gallons of fuel since service began in 2006.

Cold Train, based in Quincy, Wash., loads Northwest perishables into newly-built, energy-efficient refrigerated containers that are picked up six days a week by a BNSF South Seattle-to-Chicago high-priority intermodal train. The trip east takes just two days. Cold Train is now looking at opening a Chicago-Florida service lane. A Seattle-based energy and facilities service firm says the BNSF/Cold Train operation reduces each shipment’s carbon footprint by 52% compared with long-haul truck.

Truck companies can see measurable success when they’re allied with railroads for the long haul. J.B. Hunt, which has partnered with BNSF and predecessor Santa Fe Railway since 1989, and also shares business with Norfolk Southern, now moves close to one million intermodal trailer and container loads by train each year.

Investment that makes a difference

In March, Congress approved stop-gap transportation funding to continue through the second half of fiscal year 2013. In April, President Obama introduced a budget plan for FY2014 and beyond that calls for $40 billion in funding for improvements to passenger and freight rail. Some political analysts warn that significant cuts will likely be made to the president’s new transportation package before it gets passed.

Funding from TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants has done as much for ecology as it has for economic development. In just the past two years, TIGER has helped improve passenger, light rail, and streetcar service in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Chicago, Sacramento, and other cities.

TIGER and other government programs have also funded freight carriers in places where it benefited the local economy and helped reduce truck traffic. One of many examples is where Norfolk Southern applied TIGER money toward new intermodal terminals in Tennessee and Alabama, plus upgrades to an existing terminal outside Harrisburg, Pa. These improvements are part of NS’s $2.5 billion Crescent Corridor project, stretching 2,500 miles from Memphis and New Orleans northeast to New Jersey. NS says, “Independent studies estimate that the corridor, when fully operational, has the potential to divert 1.3 million trucks from interstate highways along the route, save 169 million gallons of fuel annually, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.9 million tons, create or preserve 73,000 jobs by 2030, and save $575 million in costs associated with traffic congestion.”

The massive Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE) has been putting local, state, and federal resources to work in building six grade separations between freight and passenger lines, and 25 separations between railroads and roadways. Trains will pass through former choke points in minutes rather than hours, reducing emissions and fuel consumption.

The EPA’s National Clean Diesel Funding Assistance Program provided $1.13 million in 2011 to Montana Rail Link for purchase of Auxiliary Power Units from Hotstart Manufacturing. The APUs have let MRL avoid prolonged idling of 34 yard and local engines, cutting more than 5,400 tons of emissions and saving more than 470,000 gallons of fuel annually. Hotstart APUs were also purchased for 27 locomotives on six railroads under the New England Locomotive Idle Reduction Project, which received $850,000 in funding from the EPA. Installation of Automatic Engine Start Stop (AESS) systems helped Kansas City Southern reduce engine idle time by more than 50%. KCS added AESS to 48 switch locomotives with funding from the EPA and the State of Missouri.

Re-inventing the locomotive

Mike Iden, General Director-Car and Locomotive Engineering at Union Pacific, received the 2012 John H. Chafee Environmental Excellence Award for what the AAR called his help in pioneering “over 40 new fuel efficiency improvement and emissions reduction technologies.” National Railway Equipment Co., Wabtec, R.J. Corman RailPower, Brookville Equipment, Railserve, and other companies are now supplying the industry with all manner of genset and single-engined eco-friendly motive power. In 2009, when the Central California Traction Co. tested Brookville’s BL21CG genset demonstrator, CCT found that it consumed 49% less fuel than a GP18 doing the same work. Brookville is now delivering BL36PH Tier 3-compliant passenger locomotives to Florida’s Tri-Rail.

Last year, Railserve introduced the latest in its LEAF (Lower Emissions And Fuel) series, a 600-hp Cummins-powered genset designed to reach maximum tractive effort at or below 10 mph, making it ideal for switching or industrial service. And R.J. Corman Railpower delivered to UP seven “ultra-low-emitting” genset RP20CDs, each powered by three 667-hp Tier 3-certified engines. They use 37% less fuel and emit 80% less nitrogen oxide (NOx). While the majority of genset switchers have been four-axle, the RP20CDs are six-axle, providing greater adhesion. Likewise, NRE’s new N-Viro 2GS36C-DE provides six-axle traction, powered by dual gensets that enable it to operate as an 1,800-hp switcher or 3,600-hp road locomotive.

Meeting EPA emission standards on the main line has required more focus on internal combustion and exhaust management. All eyes are looking to 2015 and the start of Tier 4 standards, which will call for another 70% reduction in NOx emissions, and a 76% reduction in particulate matter (PM), compared with current Tier 2-3 standards for linehaul power. General Electric, having already sold more than 5,000 of its GEVO 12-cylinder-engined, Tier 2-compliant Evolution Series locomotives, says it will be ready.

Late last year, GE announced a new Evolution design that it says will attain Tier 4 standards by running engine cylinders hot enough to minimize NOx, yet below the temperatures that increase carbon dioxide (CO2). GE Transportation told Railway Age, “We are on schedule to deliver five Tier 4 units in late 2013 to begin field testing.”

Also last year, UP and Electro-Motive Diesel announced a program to test three emission-reducing technologies in 25 SD59MX locomotives. These are SD60Ms refitted with a smaller diesel engine (3,200-hp 12-cylinder 710ECO instead of a 3,800-hp 16-cylinder), which will reduce fuel consumption 25% and make room for exhaust after-treatment equipment. SD59MX 9900 was given an oversized roof housing for more extensive after-treatment gear.

Knoxville Locomotive Works offers what it says is “a simple, easy-to-install locomotive repower package that generates superior benefits and improved economic value” compared with other rebuild companies. In partnership with engine-maker MTU of Germany, KLW repowers GP and SD series locomotives to meet Tier 3 linehaul emission standards, and SW-series switchers to meet Tier 4 standards, and does so without resorting to exhaust after-treatment or PM filters. KLW says its repowered units, when equipped with a TMV AESS, achieve “comparative fuel savings of 37-43% in switcher and road switcher duty cycles.”

A cleaner fuel for the future?

Last year, cheap and abundant natural gas took a bite out of one of railroading’s key business sectors: coal. This year, it appears natural gas could become the very thing that drives railroads into the future. Manufacturers like Caterpillar, Wabtec, and Westport Innovations are developing LNG engines. CN is already there, having begun testing in 2012 with two SD40-2Ws that run on fuel that’s 90% LNG and 10% diesel. The locomotives reduced their CO2 emissions by 30% and NOx emissions by 70%, says CN.

A fuel that’s cleaner burning than diesel is certainly attractive, but rest assured there’s also an economic factor that has railroads looking toward LNG. David Fox, president of Railway Equipment Co. (whose affiliates have provided control systems for LNG applications), says, “I believe that LNG fuel will offer a huge transformation for North American railroads, due to the cost difference between LNG and diesel. It’s estimated to be 50% to 70% less expensive. It will probably be a change comparable to the change from coal to diesel.”

BNSF said in March that it would begin testing LNG locomotives this year, with cooperation already under way with GE and EMD. This is not completely new territory for BNSF. Predecessor Burlington Northern experimented with a natural gas-powered GP9 in the 1980s. Then came two SD40-2s, which BN tested with natural gas in the 1990s. But it was BNSF predecessor Santa Fe Railway, as well as Union Pacific, which finally placed LNG units in long-term service in 1994 when they each assigned a pair of Caterpillar-engined, LNG-fueled Morrison-Knudsen MK1200G switchers to terminal duty in Los Angeles.


Railway Age surveyed several carriers about their environmental successes.

RA: What recent achievements have you made that are considered beneficial to the environment?

Amtrak: Through membership in the Chicago Climate Exchange, we committed to reduce [locomotive] emissions 6% between 2003 and 2010. We exceeded our goal through various initiatives including anti-idling practices, installation of AESS on locomotives, improvements in rolling stock, locomotive upgrades, and improved training for locomotive engineers. Amtrak has recently adopted the use of a Five-Year Strategic Plan (FY 2011-2015), and one of the objectives is to increase energy efficiency.

BNSF: In 2007, we became the first railroad to sponsor low-emissions natural gas hostler trucks to move containers within an intermodal facility. We’ve equipped more than 70% of our 6,600 locomotives with idle-control technology, and all new locomotives we purchase are equipped with this technology. BNSF operates 74 genset locomotives in Texas and California, and was the first U.S. rail carrier to install wide-span electric cranes. These cranes produce zero emissions on site while generating power each time they lower a load. We currently use this technology at our Seattle International Gateway, Memphis, and Kansas City intermodal terminals.

CN: We are participating in the Carbon Disclosure Project to gain a more comprehensive view of our carbon footprint. CN is setting fuel efficiency targets for specific trains by route and to monitor train performance against these goals, based on established benchmarks for key fuel consumption variables such as train make-up, locomotives, train handling, route gradients, curvature, and weather.

CP: In 2011, CP brought 61 new high horsepower GE Evolution Series a.c. locomotives into service, plus another 30 in 2012. The EVO locomotives, which are currently in transcontinental service on priority series trains, have increased capacity, enhanced service reliability, furthered the company’s long train strategy, reduced emissions, and contributed to the company’s 1%-2% annual fuel efficiency improvement target. Through Progress Rail Services’ Electro-Motive Diesel subsidiary, CP also began to modernize a portion of its low and medium horsepower locomotive fleet. The remanufacture of these locomotives, which began in 2012 and will take place over the next several years, supports yard fluidity and yard dwell reduction goals, and reduces fuel consumption and ongoing maintenance costs. We’ve also equipped 98% of our yard-service locomotives with ZTR AESS. This has reduced locomotive idling emissions 80%-90%.

CSX: In 2012, we set a new goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 6% to 8% by 2020, building on recent emissions reduction success that led the EPA to recognize CSX with a 2013 Climate Leadership Award. An example: CSX partnered with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to use state-of-the art techniques during remediation of the former Gautier Oil site in Gautier, Miss. We invest heavily in training that allows our employees to be safer and more productive while reducing our environmental footprint, including using ERAD (Event Recorder Automated Download) monitors to record train operations to help locomotive engineers improve fuel efficiency.

KCS: We are recycling used crossties as a fuel supplement in an on-line paper mill. We’ve acquired 175 new Tier 2 and Tier 3 locomotives over the past 10 years, retired of older locomotives, and remanufactured some locomotives with Tier 2 technology. Fuel efficiency, measured by revenue ton-miles per gallon, has increased from 364 in 2002 to 489 in 2010, a 34% improvement. During the past 10 years, KCS has remanufactured 16 older locomotives with 710 ECO kits that operate at Tier 2, achieving up to 25% savings in fuel consumption and over 50% in lube oil savings.

Montana Rail Link: We’ve purchased 16 SD70ACe Tier 2 locomotives, and installed auxiliary power units on older locomotives. We’re recycling used oil to heat the main locomotive shop in Livingston, and implementing a locomotive shutdown policy when temperatures are above 40 degrees F.

Norfolk Southern: We’ve achieved more than 60% of our five-year goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10% per revenue ton-mile of freight between 2009 and 2014. We’ve ramped up a locomotive rebuild program to improve fuel economy and reduce engine pollutants, and finished construction of an indoor locomotive emissions-testing facility at Juniata Locomotive Shop, enabling us to develop more cost-effective, fuel-efficient, cleaner-burning engines.

UP: Our railroad’s efficiency improvements, capital investments, and technology developments have improved our fuel efficiency by 19% since 2000. This means we used 1.23 billion fewer gallons of fuel over that time and saved nearly 18 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

RA: How much did your company spend in 2012 toward becoming EPA compliant with locomotive emissions? How much is budgeted for 2013?

Amtrak: We won grants to obtain genset switcher locomotives for yards in California and Chicago. The Gensets in California have been operating since June 2010, and the Chicago units are scheduled for delivery in April 2013. Amtrak also received a Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) grant through EPA’s National Clean Diesel Funding Assistance Program to replace the existing diesel engines in two switchers with genset engines for use at our Washington, D.C., (Ivy City) yard.

BNSF: Since 2000, BNSF has developed one of the industry’s newest and most fuel-efficient fleets of locomotives, purchasing 3,500 fuel-efficient locomotives to replace older locomotives. BNSF also has 86 ultra-low emission switchers that reduce NOx and PM by 80% to 90% and improve fuel efficiency by 25% compared to standard switchers.

CSX: Our locomotive fleet comprised a significant part of CSX’s nearly $2.25 billion in capital investments in 2012. As manufacturers built greater efficiencies in their locomotives, CSX continued its investment in fleet upgrades to improve fuel efficiency. We’ve spent more than $1.75 billion in the past decade to update our locomotive fleet with newer, more fuel-efficient locomotives and technologies. The company has added more than 30 genset locomotives to the fleet in the past five years. In addition, new locomotives such as the GE Evolution Series offer 6% efficiency improvements compared to older locomotives.

KCS: In 2012, we acquired 20 Tier 3 locomotives.

MRL: We plan to purchase up to nine Tier 3 units in the next two years if business trends continue to support that purchase. The company also overhauled five Tier 2 locomotives in 2012.

NS: We purchase emissions kits from the locomotive manufacturers and install them during regularly scheduled overhauls. The kits are one of the largest expenses of an overhaul. To help lower that cost, we constructed an indoor locomotive emissions-testing facility at Juniata Locomotive Shop. The two-story, climate-controlled facility is large enough for two locomotives and serves as a year-round testing ground. We can more economically obtain an EPA certificate to develop our own emissions kits, using reconditioned aftermarket parts. In spring 2012, we applied for an EPA certificate to build an emissions kit for our rebuilt SD60E locomotives. The development of less expensive alternatives to meet or exceed EPA emissions standards could enable us to move more quickly to improve fuel efficiency and reduce overall emissions across our entire locomotive fleet.

UP: Since 2000, UP has invested more than $6 billion to purchase more than 3,500 locomotives that meet the EPA’s updated emissions guidelines, as well as an additional $200 million to upgrade older locomotives in our fleet to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency.

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