All Aboard: Gas Locomotive Projects Continue to Gain Steam
There are more natural gas powered locomotives running in North America today than ever before, with frequent announcements of new pilot projects and deployments. From large Class I locomotives to regional short-lines, railroads are making strategic investment decisions in the fuel and technology that can offer the lowest cost operations over a typical 40-year asset life of a modern freight locomotive. Even through this current oil price dip, railroads are looking to natural gas to provide long-term price stability and significant environmental advantages over diesel. While no one knows if low prices will last six, 12, or 36 months, there is no question that prices will eventually rebound. Railroads with the knowledge and preliminary investments in fueling with natural gas will be competitively positioned for the long-haul.
North American Railroads Moving Natural Gas Down the Tracks
North America’s leading railroad giants continue to quietly test the waters with natural gas locomotive trials. Companies are evaluating both GE and Caterpillar gas engines, while running pilot LNG locomotives across the country to assess their durability in diverse climates. Additionally, Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad is converting 21 locomotives to Caterpillar dual-fuel CNG-diesel engines and Hexagon Lincoln Type IV CNG tanks.
Florida East Coast Rail began full-system, revenue-service trials of LNG last year, and with Federal Railroad Administration approvals now in hand, it continues to ramp up its LNG locomotive deployment efforts. The company has plans to convert its entire 24-unit mainline locomotive fleet to gas by mid-2017, and will build 13 tender cars to support its operations.
International Railroads are Chugging Along, Too
The development of the natural gas market for locomotives is not limited to operations in North America. International railroads are quickly moving forward with LNG and CNG projects of their own. This is spurred by different, and often simpler, regulatory requirements on the transport of natural gas by rail. In June 2016, Russian Railways struck an agreement with Russian gas supplier Gazprom to develop LNG fueling infrastructure at locations approved by Russian Railways to test 40 gas turbine-powered locomotives.
In December 2016, it was announced that Indian Railways will move forward with converting all of its existing locomotives to dual-fuel LNG engines, which will cut diesel consumption by 20%. The company has negotiated a long-term deal with Petronet LNG for fuel supply and is retrofitting locomotives with Cummins 1400 HP engines. It is clear from the number and diversity of rail operators looking at natural gas power around the world that this trend will only escalate as diesel prices rebound.
Emission Standards Driving Progress
EPA Tier 4 emission standards for railroad locomotives, which became effective in 2015, require that emissions of PM and NOx be further reduced by about 90 percent from the Tier 3 standard. In order to reach the Tier 4 standard, many engine manufacturers are utilizing exhaust gas after-treatment technologies for diesel engines, such as particulate filters for PM control and urea-SCR for NOx emission control. In tandem with these new standards, the sulfur emissions allowable for diesel used in locomotives is limited to 15 ppm. The high cost of new diesel locomotives and low sulfur diesel make natural gas an even more appealing alternative, as natural gas engines typically exhibit lower NOx, PM, and CO2 emissions and natural gas fuel has low sulfur content.
In response to increasingly stringent regulations, engine technology continues to advance, providing cleaner and more efficient options – including those operating on natural gas. Fuel suppliers eyeing these energy-intensive operations, are rushing to develop additional fuel production capacity to meet the expected demand for CNG and LNG. New Fortress Energy, Pivotal LNG, Ferus, Questar, and many others are throwing their hats into the ring to vie for this potentially massive market.
Overcoming Barriers to Deployment
While the current price of diesel remains a significant challenge facing the natural gas locomotive market, other logistical, technological, and regulatory hurdles remain. However, small victories like the Federal Railroad Administration’s approval of the Alaska Railroad Corporation’s plan to ship LNG by rail can be seen as significant progress in an industry where necessary regulatory change has slowed the large-scale deployment of natural gas fueled locomotives and tender cars. The company shipped LNG in two 40-foot specialized tankers for a demonstration in late fall of last year. Key equipment suppliers like Chart Industries claim that once these hurdles have diminished, they will be ready to supply the tanks and tenders necessary to quickly propel the industry forward.
For the latest information on the accelerating deployment of natural gas engines in mining operations, join us at this year’s High Horsepower (HHP) Summit, which will take place November 6-9, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Join us for the 2017 Natural Gas for High Horsepower Summit to gain insight on:
- Class I and short-line railroad case studies – demonstrating, testing, and deploying natural gas locomotives and infrastructure
- Next steps on the FRA/AAR efforts to finalize standards for natural gas tender cars
- Infrastructure development considerations, including regional transportation hubs synergies
- Current and next-generation natural gas engine technology for rail operations
- Continued focus on environmental drivers – regulatory and sustainability
- The value of fuel price stability, predictability and risk mitigation as oil creeps back up
“HHP Summit is excellent for networking — consultants, suppliers, engineering firms. It’s been very good for us.”