Wabtec and BNSF Railway Company are testing a lithium-ion battery-powered locomotive, which will be paired with diesel locomotives in a “consist” (railroad jargon for a sequence of connected locomotives) to eventually power a freight train along a stretch of rail in California’s Central Valley between Stockton and Barstow.
Wabtec has begun testing a prototype 4,400 lithium-ion battery-powered locomotive at its Erie, Pennsylvania, plant.
If successful, the fuel savings could have a big impact on BNSF and other railroads. And the environmental benefits could also help BNSF advance one of its major capacity-building projects. Adding even one battery-powered locomotive to the train could reduce the consist’s total fuel consumption by up to 15 percent.
BNSF and Wabtec (formerly GE Transportation) began the pilot program in 2018.
Currently, Wabtec builds new diesel locomotives up to 5,400 horsepower. In addition to locomotives, Wabtec also produces freight cars, passenger transit vehicles and power generation equipment, for both original equipment and aftermarket applications.
BNSF previously looked at liquefied natural gas as a possible alternative to diesel fuel, but ended the project, and has since moved on to battery power.
The leap to battery power is not as big of one as it may at first seem. Diesel-electric locomotives like the machines Wabtec builds are already essentially power plants on wheels. They use a powerful diesel engine to generate the electricity that drives the electric motors that spin the wheels.
Wabtec believes that a battery-powered locomotive is the perfect complement to its diesel-electric brethren. The battery will hold 2,400 kilowatt-hours of energy, meaning it’s able to maintain full horsepower for roughly 30 minutes on a given charge. Then the operator can decide how to use that power.
For example, the operator could slash emissions from the diesel-powered locomotives by drawing heavily on the battery to start up the train. This would be especially desirable if the train were pulling out of a city rail yard, close to populated areas.
Using the battery power also cuts down on noise. The train operator may also choose to “graze” on battery power — or even recharge the battery — when the train is cruising through open landscape, saving hundreds of gallons of diesel.
Each battery locomotive also has a brain, in the form of an onboard supervisory control system. The rail operator can input data about the train’s journey into the system — such as how much weight it’s hauling, the types of locomotives in the consist, and its route — to allow the computer to make decisions about the best way to use the battery before the train even pulls away.
Imagine a battery-enhanced train making a 500-mile trip across sparsely populated terrain — meaning fuel economy is the name of the game. Software will calculate the optimum ratio of battery power to diesel usage for such a journey and decide on the most favorable balance for the hybrid locomotive consist. The software can then pinpoint the exact moments to draw on the battery, thus sparing diesel.
The new locomotive will use a battery cell similar to what you might find under the hood of an electric car. It is a lithium-ion energy storage unit with cells that contain a combination of nickel, manganese and cobalt only far larger.
A standard electric-car battery usually holds a few hundred storage cells — each around the size of a mini tablet computer. But the prototype of the new locomotive will have a battery with approximately 20,000 cells, and future versions may have as many as 50,000 cells. The cells also must be able to weather the heavy-going environment of a locomotive, with all its jolts and shocks.
To build the demonstration model, workers stripped out the engine and cooling systems from a diesel locomotive to make way for the battery under the hood. But from the outside, the battery-powered locomotive doesn’t look much different from its diesel counterparts.
The impact on BNSF could be huge, not only in fuel cost-savings, but if it could use battery-powered locomotives in urban areas, such as the Port of Long Beach, it might be able to overcome the opposition to its long-stalled Southern California International Gateway plan, which has been held up due to environmental concerns tied to diesel emissions.
“We’re developing and testing the ‘next-generation’ locomotive now to build our advantage over long-haul trucks, remain competitive and reduce our operating costs,” BNSF’s Vice-President, Environmental, John Lovenburg, says.
© 2020 David Mazor
Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell a stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.