BNSF will begin testing a small number of locomotives using liquefied natural gas as an alternative fuel later this year.
The railroad has been working with two principal locomotive manufacturers, GE and EMD, a unit of Caterpillar, to develop the natural gas engine technology that will be used in the pilot. The use of natural gas as a transportation fuel results in the emission of fewer greenhouse gases and particulates than diesel fuel.
But the idea of using natural gas as fuel in locomotives is not new. The former Burlington Northern, now part of BNSF, used natural gas locomotives in the 1980s and 1990s (pictured). BNSF also tested LNG switch locomotives in Los Angeles until they reached the end of their useful life a few years ago.
Improved economics and technology make the use of natural gas in long-haul service more operationally feasible today, BNSF says. The pilot will be a first step to consider how the technology could be implemented.
However, even though natural gas in long-haul service has enormous potential, several significant regulatory challenges need to be addressed. BNSF describes these regulatory challenges, as well as some technical hurdles, as “daunting.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, some of the challenges include getting federal regulators’ approval on fuel-tank safety. The use of LNG will also require different fuel depots and tankers to carry the fuel, the WSJ said.
Retrofitting a diesel locomotive and adding the tanker car could increase a locomotive’s roughly $2 million price tag by half, reports the WSJ.
Traditional, diesel-powered rail freight is already a relatively carbon-efficient means of shipping. In March last year, BNSF reported that its customers avoided 30 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2011 by shipping their freight by rail instead of moving their products entirely by road. BNSF says that to move a ton of freight 500 miles by rail takes, on average, a single gallon of diesel fuel. It estimates that rail is at least four times more efficient than an all-highway option.