Brightline going biodiesel

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

The Siemens-built, Cummins QSK-95-powered Charger diesel-electric locomotives hauling All Aboard Florida’s Brightline higher-speed express passenger trains connecting West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami along the Florida East Coast Railway main line will be fueled with blended biodiesel under a two-year contract with Florida Power & Light Company (FPL).

FPL, which has used “clean, high-quality biodiesel” as a fuel for its trucks for nearly two decades, will supply Brightline with two million gallons of B5 (5% biodiesel)-blended fuel annually. FPL uses biodiesel as the primary fuel source for more than 1,750 vehicles in its fleet. Biodiesel is “a cleaner-burning replacement produced from renewable sources like corn, soybeans and used cooking oil,” Brightline says. “It is cost-competitive and reduces engine wear, and can lower operations and maintenance costs.”

Brightline CompositeSiemens Charger locomotives are equipped with 2,200-gallon fuel tanks. Each Brightline trainset incorporates two locomotives and four passenger coaches (“Select” and “Smart” coaches). Projected fuel consumption is two GPM (gallons per mile), which means the 67-mile one-way trip from Miami to West Palm Beach consumes 134 gallons.

A Cummins EPA Tier 4-compliant QSK-95 16-cylinder, four-stroke, high-speed (1,800 RPM), 4,000-hp diesel engine powers the Charger locomotive. Siemens and Cummins told Railway Age that no modifications were needed to run the QSK-95 on the biodiesel Brightline is sourcing from FPL.Cummins added that it “has conducted durability testing with biodiesel similar to the fuel sourced by Brightline and it passed our high standards. In addition, Cummins does not anticipate any measurable changes to emissions with this fuel. Cummins focuses on high speed diesels for their increased ability to meet lower emissions, superior combustion efficiency, and overall increased performance over medium-speed products. We haven’t tested biodiesel fuel on medium-speed engines.”

FPL’s truck fleet has used an estimated 18 million gallons of B5 biodiesel and has operated “more than 120 million miles without any fuel-related engine issues,” the utility says, adding that biodiesel consumption “led to a CO2 reduction of 3,625 tons—the equivalent of taking more than 600 passenger vehicles off the road in one year.”

“This fueling partnership with FPL is a great example of two Florida-based companies working together to create jobs and utilize local resources,” said Brightline Chief Mechanical Officer Tom Rutkowski. “Brightline is investing in the nation’s economy, from the trainsets to the rail infrastructure, all of which are manufactured in America. I’ve visited with many of the manufacturing plants supplying the components of our trainsets, and there is always a strong sense of pride from the teams who are creating the products.”

“FPL has long been committed to energy independence as well as environmental stewardship,” said Vice President of Energy Marketing and Trading Sam Forrest. “We’ve been tearing down old power plants to make way for new energy centers that run on clean, low-cost natural gas, and building new emissions-free solar energy centers that use 100% Florida sunshine. That’s why we’re proud to partner with Brightline to provide them with cleaner, biodiesel-blended fuel for their trains.”

Biodiesel is not new to the railroad industry. Railway Age reported on trials in late 2010:

“Soybeans, corn, rapeseed, panicum vergatim (switchgrass), Jatropha plants, sugar cane—as locomotive fuel? All of these plants can be processed into biodiesel fuel, which has been considered for many years as a partial substitute for traditional, petroleum-based diesel.

“Citing concerns like the long-term effects on power assemblies and injector systems, the railroads and the locomotive builders have been extremely cautious with biodiesel. While blends like B-5 (5% biodiesel) are OK to use as far as warranties are concerned—‘the engine barely knows it’s there,’ says EMD Director, Engine and Engine Systems Design Marti Lenz—higher blends like B-10 and B-20 can be problematic. For example, since biodiesel is closer to alcohol than petroleum-based diesel, it has a greater tendency to absorb water contamination, which can occur in a locomotive fuel tank, and introduce corrosion problems. It can adversely affect engine deposits and wear, causing problems like piston ring blowby. Also, not much is known about its cold-weather effects.

“Considering biodiesel’s potential benefits—lower cost (aided by federal subsidies to farmers who raise the soybean and corn used to manufacture it, as well as user incentives) and potentially lower particulate matter emissions—is biodiesel worth pursuing? Could its benefits outweigh its potentially harmful effects? Can anything be done to lessen them?

“There’s only one way to find out, and that’s through testing under actual service conditions. EMD and Norfolk Southern, in partnership with Archer-Daniels-Midland, are currently conducting a test program to study biodiesel’s long-term effects. Testing, which will last up to one year, began in June [2010] in the Decatur, Ill., area. NS is operating eight SD70M-2s equipped with 710 engines in pairs, in captive service. Two pairs (four units) are fueled with a biodiesel blend; the others with straight diesel. Also, two MP15s equipped with 645 engines are operating, one with biodiesel.

“‘Our prime focus is on engine wear and deposits, the effect on lube oil, and cold-weather operation,’ says Lenz. ‘We started with B-11, ran it for three months, then went to B-15. We’ll conclude with B-20, the most popular biodiesel blend. In terms of performance, horsepower so far is basically flat, and fuel consumption is up, but only slightly. We’ve seen a 2% increase in NOx emissions, but up to a 10% drop in particulate matter.’

“Justifying biodiesel means taking many factors into consideration. For example, one can argue that, since biodiesel comes from plants, and plants absorb atmospheric C02, railroad use of this fuel will contribute more to greenhouse gas reduction than railroads already claim using conventional diesel. All things considered, biodiesel may someday bolster the power of green.”

Since these initial trials, little to nothing has happened with biodiesel for locomotives. Brightline appears to be the first to apply it across a locomotive fleet, albeit a small one. More significant is Brightline’s sister company, freight carrier Florida East Coast Railway, converting some of its newer GE locomotives to LNG fuel.

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