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Could battery-electric locomotives become mainstream?

Wabtec, G&W and Carnegie Mellon ask Congress to help fund rail tech research and development

Wabtec and other seek to create a rail technology institute. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Can public and private interests work together to develop technological solutions that would enable a more sustainable freight transportation network? Rail technology provider Wabtec (NYSE: WAB) and others hope so.

Pittsburgh-headquartered Wabtec, short line operator Genesee & Wyoming (G&W) and Carnegie Mellon University are asking Congress to consider collaborating with them to form and co-fund a public-private partnership aimed at creating and funding technology research, demonstration and commercialization initiatives aimed at increasing freight rail utilization and decarbonization of the freight rail network. 

Demonstration can mean making prototypes from research, and commercialization would include making the technology available for the marketplace or the public and scaling it accordingly.

This collaboration known as the Freight Rail Innovation Institute would “send a message to the entire transportation industry that together the private and public sectors can help achieve the nation’s vision of a competitive and sustainable American freight transportation network,” said Wabtec President and CEO Rafael Santana in written testimony submitted for Thursday’s hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on the business case for climate solutions.

Within the institute, Wabtec is proposing establishing “centers of excellence” for “green power, advanced network logistics and capacity,” according to Santana. The institute would promote R&D and manufacturing opportunities within the U.S. on areas such as zero-emission locomotives powered by battery and hydrogen fuel cells and on-site hydrogen generation solutions.

“It will further develop research priorities, conduct research, development and testing and foster collaboration and action between stakeholders to ensure the U.S. maintains its competitive edge and global leadership in creating the freight rail network of the future,” Santana said.

The objectives of collaborators Wabtec, G&W and Carnegie Mellon are outlined in their “Freight 2030” vision statement, which calls for the public-private partnership as well as for the expansion of freight rail utilization through technology and the utilization of battery and hydrogen-powered locomotives to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The group also estimates that 250,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs could be spurred in the transportation and manufacturing sectors through these efforts. 

“With climate change as one of our nation’s greatest challenges, the time to shift to rail is now. For example, if we increased utilization of rail by 50% for the movement of freight over 500 miles, we can reduce 60 million tons of GHG emissions per year. That is like taking 13 million cars off the road. If the U.S. wants to lead the world in decarbonizing the transportation sector, it should look no further than freight rail technologies and innovation,” Santana said. 

For its part, Wabtec is working with BNSF (NYSE: BRK) and the California Air Resources Board to conduct advanced testing on the newly developed FLXdrive locomotive. The FLXdrive is a heavy-haul battery-electric locomotive, and the three have been conducting tests on track between Barstow and Stockton, California.

“Wabtec has a clear path to power new locomotives — and repower existing locomotives — with batteries, hydrogen internal combustion engines and hydrogen fuel cells. … We are testing and deploying our battery-electric locomotive and plan to commercialize it in the near future,” Santana said. “We are currently researching applicability of battery-hybrid and hydrogen combustion engines and hope to begin development and testing of those technologies quickly.”

Others within the freight rail industry are exploring the use of alternatively powered locomotives. In a separate and unrated announcement last week, Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) said it would be using fuel cell modules manufactured by Ballard Power to provide electric power to CP’s hydrogen-powered linehaul freight locomotive. The fuel cells will work with battery technology to power the locomotive’s electric traction motors, CP said.

“Maximizing the freight rail network and shifting to clean power requires upfront intellectual firepower and capital investment,” Santana said. “Wabtec and our partners are prepared to invest in the Freight Rail Innovation Institute alongside the U.S. government and ask for your support in creating a clean energy future together. Let’s start building America’s freight rail of tomorrow today.”

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Related articles:

Wabtec sees a future producing battery electric locomotives

BNSF, Wabtec put battery-electric locomotive to the test

Rail manufacturers Wabtec and Greenbrier share plans to fight climate change

F3: Future of Freight Festival


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.