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May 21, 2022
The New Frontier In Electric Vehicles: Trains With Batteries Big Enough To Power Small Towns
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The New Frontier In Electric Vehicles: Trains With Batteries Big Enough To Power Small Towns

Wabtec is building battery-powered locomotives for Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific and major mining companies in Australia.

Paul Gibbens for Wabtec

Like a lumbering, mile-long train, change in the freight rail industry isn’t speedy and has to be phased in with care. But locomotive builders and railroads, following the lead of carmakers and truck manufacturers, are turning to batteries big enough to power small towns as a way to curb carbon and diesel emissions, while maintaining a fuel efficiency edge.

Union Pacific recently said it would spend more than $100 million to buy 20 battery-powered locomotives and charging systems from Wabtec and Caterpillar’s Progress Rail, the world’s biggest such purchase to date. Starting in 2023, the Omaha-based railroad will use the trains to pull cars around freight yards in California and Nebraska—rather than on cross-country runs—and estimates the mammoth machines could eliminate 8,000 tons of carbon emissions annually. Adding batteries is also a way to buttress efficiency: Trains haul freight over 480 miles per gallon of diesel fuel per ton. That’s up to four times better than the average for trucks, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“We’re advantaged from a fuel-consumption perspective and we’re advantaged from a (diesel) particulate standpoint, but trucks might get batteries sooner, and they’ll start to creep up on us,” Beth Whited, Union Pacific’s executive vice president for sustainability and strategy, tells Forbes. The second-largest U.S. railroad by revenue also intends to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26% by 2030 and thinks electric trains can help do that. “The big deal for us is to really drive the emissions reductions—as quickly as we can.” 

Freight rail accounts for only about 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources.

Environmental Protection Agency

Billions of dollars are being invested to ramp up production of battery-electric cars and commercial vehicles, with some of the biggest bets being made by General Motors, Ford, Hyundai, Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler, Cummins and Volvo. Freight rail, given the mass and power requirements of locomotives, is a more complex undertaking. Fully electric trains aren’t likely in the near term, mainly owing to the need for more testing of battery systems tailored to their unique requirements. Even so, the industry is starting from a surprisingly efficient position when it comes to carbon pollution: Though about 40% of U.S. freight was carried by railroads in 2019 accounted for less than 2% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, while trucks generated 24%, according to the EPA.   

Union Pacific ordered locomotives with 2.5-megawatt-hour batteries from Wabtec but isn’t sure the lithium-ion cells they use are durable enough to deploy them on its main, long-haul lines where multiple diesel-powered locomotives are linked up to pull 150 more rail cars, says Whited. Instead, the railroad is looking to use more biodiesel and fuels made from renewable sources to cut particulate pollution from its trains. And although hydrogen-powered systems are being developed for lighter passenger trains by Cummins and other companies, the cost of installing new large-scale storage facilities and minimal availability of hydrogen made from low-carbon sources means it’s not an option for now.

“The big deal for us is to really drive the emissions reductions—as quickly as we can.” 

“That technology is a little further behind for our particular use—and it has more stink on it for us,” Whited says. That’s because switching to hydrogen would require the railroad to invest in a more complex storage and fueling than what it uses for diesel. “The supply of hydrogen in the United States at this point, I don’t think it’s prepared to support the number of projects that are being discussed that can be built over time. We’re paying attention to what’s happening with hydrogen. We just think it’s early.”

Other railroads want to start to see whether Wabtec’s battery trains, with lithium-ion Ultium packs supplied by partner General Motors, can do more than pull cars around a rail yard. The Pittsburgh-based manufacturer is readying more powerful machines for Canadian National and Australian mining companies Rio Tinto, BHP and Roy Hill that will be loaded with up to 8 mwh battery packs, says Wabtec CTO Eric Gebhardt. Such “utility-scale” batteries would be too heavy for semi trucks—owing to federal rules barring vehicles heavier than 80,000 pounds from U.S. highways—but are fine in 425,000-pound locomotives. They’ll be paired up with diesel-powered locomotives to save fuel and cut emissions. Wabtec did that in a pilot project in California’s Central Valley last year with BNSF, using a 2.4 mwh pack that cut fuel usage by 11%.  

Trains with high-powered batteries save on fuel and utilize regenerative brakes—like a supersize version of those on Toyota’s Prius or a Tesla Model 3—to recharge while in operation, capturing huge amounts of kinetic energy generated from slowing heavy trains.

“We’re now at 7 mwh (batteries) and we’re going to 8 mwh in the near future. When we do that, we’re going to save 30% on fuel usage,” Gebhardt says. “Because every time you hit the brakes all of that is charging the batteries. It’s several megawatts worth of power going into those batteries. . . . The big difference between a train and a truck is that you may have a mile or two of cars behind you on a train, which are 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 tons.”

Since its initial California test last year, Wabtec has quickly received orders for 18 battery-powered locomotives. Gebhardt won’t discuss how much pricing, though based on Union Pacific’s order, the 2.5 mwh trains may cost about $4 million each. “The mining companies in Australia are purchasing these for their own tracks and then we have another unit with Canadian National, so it’s picking up steam. We ran the original unit in early 2021, got results in the middle of 2021. And now the orders are starting to come in, which we’re very excited about.”

Los Angeles-based Parallel Systems, led by a trio of former SpaceX engineers, is taking high-tech rail ideas even further with plans for relatively small, battery-powered trains making short-haul freight runs that also can operate autonomously, according to cofounder and CEO Matt Soule. “We are creating a vehicle that has truck-competitive unit economics without requiring massive scale,” he says.

Los Angeles-based Parallel Systems is developing small, electric and autonomous trains for relatively short freight runs.

Parallel Systems

Parallel’s plan is trains of 10 to 50 cars on platforms it’s designing that are powered by distributed battery packs, operating as a complement to typical trains of 150 cars or more rolling on freight rail lines. It also intends to leverage Positive Train Control, or PTC, the safety technology manufactured by Wabtec and Progress Rail that’s now used across all U.S. freight and passenger rail lines, to automate its vehicles. PTC lets operators at rail-monitoring facilities know the precise location of trains to avoid potential collisions and accidents. Add computer vision and sensors and Parallel believes you can run its trains autonomously.  

Unlike self-driving cars and trucks that have to be ready for an array of unexpected circumstances on city streets and highways on a rail line “you’re not randomly encountering other trains on the network; you have this central knowledge of where everything is,” says Soule. PTC helps ensure only one train is operating within specific segments at a time. “The industry has made a massive investment in Positive Train Control, and we absolutely see it as something to leverage.”

Parallel emerged from stealth in January with a $50 million funding round and in February received a $4.4 million grant from the Energy Department to test its electric freight train platform with federal researchers. 

Though Wabtec is getting ready to build and deliver its first 18 battery-powered trains, it’s upbeat about interest in electric locomotives, says Gebhardt.

“We’re not giving estimates on these numbers at this point, but we see it having a good ramp here over the next couple of years,” he says. 

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