Rail System Electrification to Reach Net Zero?

Sustainability Solution for Freight Rail Includes a Range of Technologies


rail system electrification to reach net zero

Electrification of rail transportation is one way to reduce greenhouse gases and meet the sustainability goals of regulators, rail industry members, manufacturers and customers. The call for rail electrification is spurred by growing interest in the reduction of emissions and mandates such as regulations passed in April 2023 by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The Advanced Clean Fleets regulation bans the sale of diesel-powered semi-trucks by 2036 and mandates all trucks in California to be zero-emission vehicles after 2042. It also requires that industrial and passenger trains built in or after 2030 operate in zero-emissions configurations while in California, and the same rule applies to freight line haulers starting in 2035.

According to the International Energy Agency, electric rail, which accounts for over 85% of passenger rail activity and 55% of freight movements globally, does not emit any direct CO2 emissions. Removing freight from individual trucks and passengers from vehicles on roads to trains is seen as a viable way to move to net zero emissions by 2050, according to a report from the International Energy Agency.

Electrification is taking place in countries around the world, along with programs designed to use other sources of energy.

China’s rail network has 40,000 km of electric rail. In 2019, Chinese railways had over 3.6 billion passenger trips and carried over 4.3 billion tons of freight. As of 2021, China’s rail network was 150,000 km, which includes more than 40,000 km of high-speed rail. China has plans to expand its rail network to 274,000 kilometers by 2050, to increase its freight capacity and to increase high-speed, electric rail to 80,000 km by 2035.

The Indian government’s goal is to have India’s railways fully electrified by 2024 and become the world’s largest Green Railways by 2030. The share of electrified tracks increased from 45% in 2015 to 80% in 2022. A small pilot project to generate 1.7 MW of solar energy on vacant railway land has been completed and other projects are in progress. By 2030, the goal is to increase this production to 20 GW. Currently, the railways draw electricity from the national grid, which has less than 40% of the energy coming from renewable energy sources.

With less than 1% of U.S. rail electrified—much of it for passenger trains in the Northeast—some lessons can be learned from other countries.

“Lessons include the ability for catenary [a system of overhead wires used to supply electricity to trains]to operate in extremely cold conditions, such as used for the Trans-Siberian Railway or the use of catenary for freight in other parts of the world to handle the issues of freight rail transportation, such as India’s solution for catenary for double-stacked contained loads,” said Michael M. Johnsen, senior advisor on climate and sustainability, U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). “In addition, costs of installing catenary are lower in other countries, so maybe there are lessons about how to lower costs for U.S. use, and other country’s use of catenary for passenger rail may have lessons for the U.S.’s passenger and freight rail network.”

Viability in the U.S.

“Electrification, which would include the use of catenary or even a third rail approach, is a viable means of freight rail propulsion, as demonstrated in other parts of the world,” said Johnsen. “However, the freight rail network in the U.S. is privately owned, so opting to string catenary has, thus far, been an expensive option for the freight railroads and an option they have not chosen. Electrification has advantages such as being a proven and known technology for logistic, technical and safety issues.”

The focus on energy efficiency, decarbonization, use of renewable energy sources and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions has led to greater interest in new technology and strategies for the rail industry to set and achieve sustainability goals.

“This is a good time to start the conversation about electrification of the freight rail system in the U.S.,” said Steve Griffith, executive director of transportation systems and cybersecurity at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. “There is no silver bullet, or one solution, to electrifying the rail system, so the conversation needs to include a variety of strategies that address cost and other challenges.”

The conversation also needs to include a wide range of participants, said Griffith. “At a recent meeting of the Rail Electrification Council, an affiliate of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), representatives from railroads, regulators, unions, utilities and manufacturers laid the groundwork to begin working together to reach zero emissions in the rail industry,” he said. Major change occurs in small increments over time, especially for a complex goal, but there is growing interest among all stakeholders, he added.

“Most Class 1 freight railroads in the U.S. have greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goals and are investigating alternative propulsion technologies to diesel fuel, which is used today for freight locomotives,” said Johnsen. “Electrification has been traditionally viewed as cost prohibitive but may receive a new look as railroads seek to reduce their GHG emissions. Costs of installation and maintenance are the largest challenges.”

“Railroad rights-of-way can be potential sources of income to underwrite the cost of electrification,” said Griffith. Leasing a right-of-way to a utility company for underground transmission lines provides another source of revenue for the railroads and a way to expand electric grid integration, he said.

A report by the Rail Electrification Council outlines the benefits and challenges of railroad electrification. The report also discusses how the historical rail system is an ideal connector between location-constrained renewable resources that are increasingly in demand and major power markets, said Griffith. “The electric transmission industry has a known interest in utilizing rights-of-ways to address the layers of regulation that make planning and development of the kind of cross-border or interregional transmission that is required for a vibrant energy market a difficult, expensive and frequently unsuccessful process.”

“Catenary locomotive maintenance costs are about half of those for diesel locomotives,” said Johnsen. Catenary is a known and proven technology, while other zero-emission technologies (such as hydrogen) need to be further developed, but the length and weight of today’s freight trains may require additional operational adjustments, he added.

“The rail industry is investing heavily in testing new, lower- and zero-emission technologies for locomotives, including battery electric locomotives and hydrogen fuel cells,” said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. “Battery electric locomotives provide significant promise for use as yard locomotives, even in the current early stages of development. In addition, several Class I railroads have undertaken a modernization effort to retrofit their existing locomotive fleet, which reduces emissions while improving efficiency.”

Battery Options to Eliminate Emissions

“Battery technology has emerged as a zero-emission technology for smaller, switcher locomotives operating in railyards,” said Johnsen. “Through its grant programs, FRA has funded the acquisition of 15 zero-emission battery-electric switcher locomotives for use in railyards.”

While switcher locomotives in a railyard often work independently of other locomotives, a typical 1- to 2-mile long freight train commonly relies on a consist of three to four locomotives at the front of the train, said Tim Bader, director of external and engineering communications for Wabtec Corporation. “Removing one diesel locomotive and replacing it with a battery-powered locomotive to create a hybrid consist and incorporating software that optimizes the use of diesel and battery power reduces fuel use and emissions,” he said.

A three-month pilot with BNSF Railway using Wabtec’s FLXdrive battery-electric locomotive resulted in an average reduction in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of more than 11% for the entire train. “The pilot project was not on a test track, it was a mainline train in revenue service between Stockton and Barstow in California,” explained Bader. “The battery locomotive, which has 18,000 lithium-ion battery cells, charged at the railyard and recharged during the trip through regenerative braking.”

The first 100% battery-powered heavy-haul freight locomotive will be delivered to Roy Hill, an Australian mining company, for mainline service in 2024. “The mining industry is an early adopter of battery-powered technology because companies own their railroads to transport material from mines to ports,” said Bader. The combination of reducing fuel and maintenance costs and meeting emission-reduction requirements makes the addition of a battery-powered locomotive an attractive step to controlling costs and meeting sustainability targets, he added. “Roy Hill’s locomotive has an energy capacity of 7 megawatt hours (MWh), and we expect a double-digit percentage reduction in fuel costs and emissions,” he said. “One feature that is unique to the locomotive is a unique battery thermal management system using liquid cooling to withstand the region’s heat, which can reach temperatures of 55°C (130°F).”

Autonomous battery electric rail cars are another strategy to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency in the rail industry. Intramotev’s TugVolt and ReVolt are battery electric self-propelled rail cars that enable freight to move with the flexibility of a truck without breaking the existing model of rail operations, said Timothy Luchini, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Intramotev. Rather than powering a locomotive with batteries, Intramotev shrinks the energy requirements to fit a single rail car that can integrate into a train consist with other battery-powered and traditional rail cars and decouple to operate independently, like a truck, for first- or last-mile transport. “The beauty of this solution is not only a reduction of greenhouse gases but also an increase in efficiency,” he said.

Results from customers using the technology for point-to-point moves for mines, ports and industrial plants range from a 30% to 80% reduction in operating expenses and better use of currently owned, onsite assets. “The rail cars have a range of 600 miles on their own, but when integrated with other rail cars, they can extend their range as they share energy,” said Luchini.

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