FLXdrive ‘Electrifies’ Pittsburgh

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

If electrical industry pioneer and railroad air brake inventor George Westinghouse, who hailed from New York State but established his namesake company in Pittsburgh, Pa., were around to see the Wabtec (Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies) FLXdrive battery locomotive, he’d be shocked—figuratively, of course.

Wabtec’s FLXdrive, described as “the world’s first 100% battery, heavy-haul locomotive,” fresh off testing on BNSF, was front and center at a Sept. 10 event at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to mark the signing of two MOUs (memorandum of understanding). One, noting CMU as “a top university in engineering, artificial intelligence, battery technology, autonomy and robotics,” involves Wabtec and the university “formalizing their joint aim to create technologies that will decarbonize freight rail transport, improve freight safety, and generate greater rail network utilization.” The other is between Wabtec and Genesee & Wyoming “to pursue zero-emission battery and hydrogen freight strategies, as well as increase rail utilization across North America.”

CMU, Genesee & Wyoming and Wabtec also hope to create the Freight Rail Innovation Institute, described as “the first-of-its-kind effort to create zero-emission locomotives, develop technology that increases freight rail utilization and improve safety by 50%, and create 250,000 jobs by 2030.” G&W’s Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad will pilot technologies developed by the Freight Rail Innovation Institute, including a zero-emissions battery and hydrogen-powered train that is planned for revenue operation on 200 miles of track between Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y. within the next three years. 

The Freight Rail Innovation Institute’s creation depends upon the award of a $600 million, five-year grant from legislation co-authored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.-17).

(Lamb hopes to become the Democratic contender in the 2022 Mid-term Elections for the seat currently held by Republican Pat Toomey, one of only seven Republican Senators who voted to impeach Donald Trump in February. Toomey, first elected to the Senate in 2010, will not seek re-election.)

The Senate version, the Freight Rail Innovation Act (S. 1732), was introduced in May to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. It has not moved out of committee. Lamb’s bill, also named the Freight Rail Innovation Act (HR. 3409) was introduced at the same time to the  House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and has not moved out of committee. Both bills aim to establish a Freight Rail Innovation Institute. Both legislators spoke at the Wabtec event; both—no surprise—said they were confident that the CMU-Wabtec-G&W initiative would be successful in winning the $600 million grant.

The MOUs “are based on a joint vision of building a more sustainable freight transportation network [that] consists of two parts … powering locomotive fleets with alternative energy sources, such as batteries, and eventually, hydrogen fuel cells for a zero-emissions freight rail network pilot. The second focuses on advancements to current signaling systems and digital technologies to increase rail network capacity, utilization and safety across the U.S.” Carnegie Mellon University “will play a leading role in developing the engineering technologies that bring together the data, logistics and intelligence needed to optimize rail operations, while reducing emissions.”

Pennsylvania politics aside, the first-generation FLXdrive, built in Erie, Pa., is an impressive machine. Earlier this year, the locomotive, as one unit of a three-unit lashup with two Wabtec AC4400s, performed in revenue operations during a three-month, 13,000-mile pilot in California on BNSF between Barstow and Stockton. Operating at 2.4 MWh (megawatt hours), it reduced overall fuel consumption by more than 11% across the entire locomotive consist, saving more than 6,200 gallons of diesel fuel and eliminating approximately 69 tons of CO2 emissions, according to Wabtec. The FLXdrive manages overall train energy flow and distribution through its Trip Optimizer system.

Railway Age spoke with Wabtec project managers Bruce Bloomster and Chris Sheridan about the first-generation FLXdrive’s technical features, as well as those of the second-gen locomotive, currently in development, which will triple the first gen’s output to 7.2 MWh and is expected to reduce fuel consumption by up to 30%. 

The first-gen unit, GECX BEL44C4D No. 3000, which will be tested on CSX between Cumberland, Md., and New Castle, Pa., on the New Castle Subdivision, prior to entering service on the B&P hauling a 130-car manifest train, is a six-axle, two-truck locomotive with four powered axles, the center axle on each truck an idler axle. Traction power, which is equivalent to that of a Tier 4-compliant 4,400-hp diesel-electric with 144,000 pounds of starting tractive effort and 78,000 pounds of continuous tractive effort, is provided by 18,000 lithium-ion battery cells configured in 500 modules, each of which weighs 120 pounds.

Those modules are subdivided into 20 “strings” of 25 modules (or 4,500 battery cells) each, with a BSC (battery string controller). Each powered axle utilizes 5 strings and has its own buss. Each string is air cooled via bottom-mounted fans; the entire battery “room,” which features a center walkway, is kept at a constant 74 degrees F with a roof-mounted Thermo King air conditioning unit.

Failure of a single module shuts down an entire string, reducing power to the corresponding axle of 20%. Thus, unlike a diesel-electric locomotive where a prime-mover or traction alternator failure disables the locomotive, a string failure does not prevent the locomotive from operating at a reduced power level. “Thermal runaway” damage caused by battery cell failures is confined to a single module. 

As anyone who has driven an electric car like a Tesla, electric motors provide 100% torque, instantly. Thus, to prevent occurrences like couplers being pulled out of their carriers, the FLXdrive’s throttle response is “tuned to be like that of a diesel-electric, though it’s a still little quicker than a diesel,” with a “properly balanced load rate” and an output of 37 amp-hours. 

Battery charging while the FLXdrive is operating occurs through regenerative dynamic braking. Stationary charging uses 480-volt lineside power and takes about 8 hours. Operating independently, the locomotive can provide 30 to 40 minutes of full electric power. Battery life is estimated at 5 years, which is when the batteries are expected to drop below 80% of full capacity. But that doesn’t mean they’re “dead.” They’re just not powerful enough for a locomotive application, and can be re-purposed for applications in a secondary market like stationary ground energy storage. Wabtec is investigating the possibilities. Beyond that, disposal of exhausted lithium-ion batteries in an environmentally sound matter is unclear at this point.

The second-gen FLXdrive will be equipped with larger, heavier battery packs that will require a crane for removal and replacement, as they will be about 6 feet long by 5 feet wide by 18 inches deep and weigh several hundred pounds, compared to the first-gen’s approximate 3 feet by 18 inches by 6 inches, and 130 pounds. Cooling will be liquid, instead of air, and the locomotive will have outside walkways, rather than a battery room with a center walkway. Output will be 52 to 57 amp-hours. All six axles will be powered. A three-unit, 100% battery lashup is expected to be more powerful than an equivalent all-diesel-electric consist. Stationary charging, which is expected to require about 4 hours, will involve a section of high-voltage catenary and a roof-mounted pantograph on the locomotive. Wabtec expects the second-gen FLXdrive to be commercially available in 2023.

The second-gen FLXdrive already has a customer. On Sept. 13, Australian iron ore mining company Roy Hill announced it will be taking delivery of a single unit. The company, with Australia’s largest single-ore mine in Western Australia’s mineral-rich Pilbara region, currently uses four Wabtec ES44ACi Evolution Series diesel-electric locomotives in a consist to haul unit trains that are typically 1.6 miles in length. The FLXdrive will replace one of the diesel locomotives to form a hybrid consist, and recharge during the trip through regenerative braking. The liquid cooling system is expected to withstand the Pilbara heat, where temperatures can reach 55 degrees C (130 degrees F).

Based on the route and Roy Hill’s rail operations, the FLXdrive is anticipated to reduce the company’s fuel costs and emissions in percentage by double-digits per train, and reduce ongoing operational costs through maintenance spend. 

“Our analysis with Wabtec confirms the FLXdrive locomotive is ideally suited for our rail network,” said Simon Pascoe, General Manager of Engineering for Roy Hill. “It has the horsepower to operate in a heavy-haul train consist pulling loaded railcars with 35,000 tonnes of iron ore, while at the same time reducing the entire train’s fuel consumption. The FLXdrive also is designed to function in the extreme heat of the Pilbara region.”

“We are committed to transforming the next generation of transportation by adopting advanced technologies that improve energy efficiency, lower operating costs and improve our rail and mining network,” said Gerhard Veldsman, CEO of Roy Hill. “The FLXdrive locomotive will be the first for the region and the first for the mining industry and will improve our rail operations from the mine to Port Hedland.”

“This order demonstrates Roy Hill’s progressive and forward-thinking approach to the mining industry,” said Wendy McMillan, Regional Senior Vice President Australia and New Zealand for Wabtec. “By adopting this revolutionary technology in region, Roy Hill is pioneering new approaches to its operations that will benefit the company’s bottom line. The FLXdrive is a continuation of our growing partnership and shared vision to bring more efficient solutions to mining and rail industries.”

“Looking to the future,” Wabtec says it plans to “accelerate the shift to alternative clean energy solutions, through zero-emission hydrogen-powered locomotives.”

Brazilian Milestone

Wabtec on Aug. 6 celebrated modernizing its 1,000th locomotive in North and South America with delivery to Norfolk Southern of AC44C6M 4463, a rebuilt 1998-vintage GE Dash-9. The 500thmodernization occurred in Brazil, at Wabtec’s Contagem plant, for logistics and transportation company Rumo and freight railroad MRS Logística S.A., among whose primary customers is iron ore terminal operator VALE. The final product was an AC44i converted from an AC4400 and repowered, with an EVO prime-mover replacing a 7FDL16.

Railway Age spoke with Rogerio Mendonca, President of Wabtec’s Freight Equipment Business, which includes global locomotive, mining, marine and drill portfolios. Mendonca, a Brazilian native, was President of GE Oil & Gas in Latin America and also President of GE Transportation in Latin America. During his tenure at GE Transportation, he led the transformation of the Contagem plant to a “mixed-model moving assembly line” based on Lean Manufacturing. 

Contagem, Mendonca said, “is the first plant in the rail industry to build heavy-haul locomotives on a moving line. Unlike stationary production lines, the moving line is designed so that employees assemble different locomotive configurations on the same line as hydraulic systems move the locomotives down the track at speeds between 1 and 2 meters per hour. Sensors enable real-time remote monitoring of progress, enabling any problems to be addressed. The results are from this manufacturing approach as impressive: lead time reduced by approximately 20%, a working capital improvement of more than $2 million, and 13,000 square feet of space savings within the factory.”

Contagem builds locomotives, both new and overhauled, designed to operate on Brazil’s two track gauges—1.6 meter (5 feet, 3 inch) broad gauge and 1 meter, clearance-restricted narrow gauge. It also manufactures locomotives for India, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria and other African countries.

Watch a time-lapse video of the Contagem plant on YouTube.

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