CSX and GE Transportation to team up on LNG-powered locomotive pilot program

By Jeff Berman · November 14, 2013

The ongoing emergence of the role of natural gas in freight transportation is making its latest stop on railroad tracks in the form of an agreement between Class I railroad carrier CSX and GE Transportation that will focus on exploring emissions-cutting and efficiency advancements through the use of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) technology for locomotives.

Officials from both companies said that a pilot program in the form of field tests will kick off next year.

Among the benefits of LNG-powered locomotives, according to CSX and GE Transportation are trains being able to travel longer distances without refueling stops and other economic and environmental benefits.

“LNG technology has the potential to offer one of the most significant developments in railroading since the transition from steam to diesel in the 1950s,” said Oscar Munoz, executive vice president and chief operating officer, CSX Corporation, in a statement.  “That change took many years to complete and began with a lot of unknowns, and this one is no different.  But aggressively exploring this technology is consistent with CSX’s focus on tomorrow, its longstanding commitment to efficient and environmentally friendly transportation, and its role in helping to promote U.S. energy independence.  GE Transportation has the know-how to provide the right LNG solution for our locomotive fleet and help us better understand the feasibility of LNG technology from a safety, operations and economic perspective.”

Low-pressure natural gas technology has been tested by GE since this spring, and the company is also working two other Class I railroads on similar efforts.

GE said its proprietary NextFuel kits allow railroads to use natural gas as a fuel source, reduce emissions, and possibly reduce fuel costs while not negatively impacting performance, and the company added that an Evolution Series locomotive equipped with the NextFuel Natural Gas Retrofit Kit meets US EPA Tier 3 emission standards.

“LNG fueled locomotive engine kits have the potential to provide savings in current fuel costs and drive efficiencies for customers while offering substantially increased locomotive range between refueling, providing another transforming benefit for the freight railroad industry,” a CSX spokesperson told LM. “CSX and GE see enormous potential benefits to be gained.”

And the spokesperson explained that GE Transportation’s new NextFuel Natural Gas Retrofit Kits enable existing Evolution Series locomotives to operate with dual fuel capabilities.

“This gives railroads flexibility to run on both diesel fuel and LNG with up to 80 percent gas substitution as well as run 100 percent diesel,” the spokesperson said. “GE LNG engine technology is expected to offer substantially increased locomotive range between refueling, providing another transforming benefit for the freight railroad industry. LNG locomotives are also expected to significantly reduce key emissions compared to equivalent diesel locomotive engines, and offer potential savings in fuel costs.” 

Within the railroad sector, the spokesperson said that a shift to natural gas promises enhancements to the nation’s energy security and also environmental benefits, as LNG fueled locomotive engine kits have the potential to provide savings in current fuel costs and drive efficiencies for customers while offering substantially increased locomotive range between refueling, which the spokesperson described as a transforming benefit for the freight railroad industry.

When asked what the next steps in this partnership are, the spokesperson said GE and CSX are at a very early stage in evaluating LNG as a locomotive fuel.

“The partnership will explore opportunities, but a full-scale implementation will take much longer, as we work through challenges that include safety considerations, fueling processes and stations, and other equipment or facility modifications that may be needed,” the spokesperson said.

A CSX official said that CSX will carefully review the steps in this development process with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Tony Hatch, principal of New York-based ABH Consulting, said it is reasonable to expect more rail interests, whether they are passenger, heavy freight, or switchers, to be looking into LNG-powered locomotive usage and deployment in the future but he cautioned it is not likely to come without some challenges.

“Upfront costs for something like this will be very high, but the potential savings, given the complete break gas prices and oil prices could be huge,” he said. “Again, it would not be without risk. I have heard varying things about whether the new LNG-powered engines are more or less complex in terms of training personnel for maintenance work.”

Railroads, said Hatch, appear to have an inherent advantage over their trucking brethren, when it comes to the possibility to being able to implement LNG in a more efficient and cost-advantageous manner.

The trucking sector, he said, would require outside help like myriad fueling stations to refuel LNG-fueled trucks, whereas the railroads own their infrastructure, and while it would not be cheap they would have a built-in location for those things.

“To me, this is another sign that this movement may actually be happening and it is even a fraction as big as CSX thinks it will be, that is enormous in itself,” he said.

Brooks Bentz, managing director of supply chain operations for Accenture, said that this announcement is very encouraging news.

“The largest truck stop operator, Pilot Flying J, among others is adding dual fuel pumping capabilities at truck stops, which enable trucking companies to take advantage using LNG, when it’s feasible, yet still burn diesel when it is not,” he noted. “It’s apparent that dual-fuel engines will be the coming thing in both trucking and railroading.  With fuel price volatility, having options is strategically sensible and environmentally responsible.  The major railroads are as attuned to this as anyone, which is manifesting itself in pilot programs at some of the major carriers.”

About the Author

Jeff Berman
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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