Freight Train Companies Testing Hydrogen-, Battery-Powered Locomotives to Cut Emissions

Freight train companies are testing hydrogen- and battery-powered locomotives to attempt to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

On Wednesday, BNSF railroad announced plans to test a hydrogen-powered locomotive on its line. Canadian Pacific is also experimenting with hydrogen to power its technology.

Other railroads have looked into natural gas- and battery-powered options. Wabtec and Caterpillar's Progress Rail unit, major locomotive manufacturers, are trying to create locomotives that run on other fuels.

Canadian National railroad also said it has plans to test a battery-powered locomotive to carry freights across Pennsylvania, while Union Pacific said it would like to try using battery-powered locomotives for some of its railyards once they become more widely available.

All railroads cautioned that at this stage, they are only pilot tests, and new technology won't be ready to replace diesel locomotives for several years at a minimum.

"This technology could one day be a lower-carbon solution for line-haul service, as it has the potential to reduce carbon emissions and remain cost competitive," John Lovenburg, BNSF's vice president of environmental, said.

Another thing that could potentially slow the replacement of diesel locomotives is that railroads generally use locomotives for decades to get their money's worth out of them. Major freight railroads also have thousands of locomotives in storage due to management changes made over the previous five years by the industry that has let them use fewer locomotives because of reliance on longer trains.

Railroads already deliver freight more efficiently than trucks, according to The Association of American Railroads. Freight railroads carry one ton of weight over 480 miles per gallon of fuel on average. However, major U.S. railroads consume over 3.4 million gallons of diesel fuel annually.

Fraight Railroads, Alternative Fuels, Testing, Locomotives
BNSF said on December 15, 2021, that it plans to test out a hydrogen-powered locomotive on its railroad lines as part of its plan to reduce its emissions. The industry is also experimenting with battery- and natural gas-powered locomotives although the freight railroads caution that the new technology is likely still several years away from any widespread use. Above, a BNSF rail terminal worker monitors the departure of a freight train on June 15, 2021, in Galesburg, Illinois. Shafkat Anowar/AP Photo, File

On Wednesday, BNSF railroad announced plans to test a hydrogen-powered locomotive on its line.

BNSF didn't say how quickly it expects the hydrogen-powered locomotive it plans to use will be ready to try out while a Canadian Pacific spokesman said it plans to begin using three hydrogen-powered locomotives around the province of Alberta sometime next year. CP received a $15 million grant earlier this year to double the amount it planned to invest in the program.

Before the railroads could make wholesale changes in their locomotive fleets, they would have to invest millions in new fueling stations and other infrastructure. And any changes would likely have to be somewhat standardized across the industry because the major freight railroads regularly pass locomotives back and forth to keep trains moving efficiently.

BNSF said it plans to work with Chevron to help set up the fueling infrastructure it will need for its hydrogen test.

The railroads already invest in an assortment of measures that help them improve the efficiency of its trains, including systems that operate like cruise control to help engineers use the least amount of fuel possible as they cross the countryside.

"Every locomotive, piece of equipment and operational decision is an opportunity to reduce fuel usage and drive down emissions," said Ian Jefferies, president of the rail trade group. "Working with suppliers, railroads are piloting alternative and lower carbon solutions across the nation capable of delivering for both the economy and environment."

In addition to experimenting with locomotive fuels, Norfolk Southern also recently announced a plan to invest in 800 new railcars that each weight 15,000 pounds less than the current cars in use, which will also help reduce emissions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Freight Railroads, Alternative Fuels, Testing, Locomotives
Many North American railroads have looked into natural gas- and battery-powered options to replace their diesel locomotives to reduce greenhouse emissions. In this photo, a BNSF freight train hauling oil tankers loaded with crude oil heads west through the this downtown transcontinental railroad hub on June 22, 2018, in Whitefish, Montana. George Rose/Getty Images