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Disruption junction: Startup aims to replace locomotives with autonomous railcars

Intramotev says its offerings ‘promise to disrupt traditional rail’

A concept rendering of Intramotev's TugVolt Hopper. (Image: Intramotev)

Imagine shorter, more environmentally friendly trains bearing everything from lithium carloads to intermodal containers across short-haul distances. Imagine further that these trains are unencumbered by long waits for locomotives — because they don’t use locomotives.

That is the vision that St.Louis-based rail technology startup Intramotev hopes to bring to fruition.

The company, founded in 2020 by Tim Luchini, Corey Vasel and Alex Peiffer, seeks to develop autonomous, zero-emission rail vehicles that could be used to create trains without locomotives.

Intramotev says its offerings “promise to disrupt traditional rail.”

The idea came about as Peiffer was looking at case studies on the U.S. logistics market while Luchini was delving into rail technology — particularly the kind that could unlock new capabilities and uses for the traditional freight rail system.

In talks with stakeholders, they learned that railroads turn a profit on hauls longer than 1,000 miles, while hauls of 600 to 1,000 miles are an untapped but coveted market for the railroads — one captured largely by the trucking industry.

Peiffer and Luchini wondered how they could develop a technology to enable railroads to capture that shorter-haul market share. They also wanted to know how companies could make better use of railcars that otherwise must wait for locomotives to haul them away. The company says on any given day, up to 900,000 of the 1.6 million active railcars in the U.S. don’t move; instead, they sit on average for 24.6 hours on each leg of their journey waiting for diesel locomotives. 

The solution they landed on formed the genesis of the company.

“We thought about it for a while and came up with this concept that really helps solve one of the biggest pain points in rail,” Luchini, Intramotev’s CEO, told FreightWaves.

Intramotev’s technology aims to create railcars that can be used autonomously over shorter distances. Whether retrofitted or custom-built with the technology, the railcars could be strung together to form a train — with no locomotive at the helm.

The technology consists of several elements: an on-board propulsion system using electric motors, battery storage and a sensor sweep so the railcar can see what’s around it and know where it is, Luchini told FreightWaves. Intramotev’s commercial demonstration unit retrofits railcars with the technology.

Intramotev sees mining operations as a shoe-in for the technology since the rail network serving the mining industry is largely located in remote areas. But the company is designing technology for intermodal shipments, which could help ports move containers inland. 

“We see a lot of capability in increasing the utilization of the current track network and increasing the capacity that’s associated with that by having some automated technologies in there,” said Peiffer, co-founder and chief operating officer. “But we also recognize that the hurdles to get to that point, and using them on the public interchange, are greater than using them in captive-use cases like mining.”

Intramotev has been focused on developing its commercial demonstration unit, and it hopes to complete the testing of its work on a full-scale unit in the second quarter of next year. From there, it plans to continue to refine the technology and look for a pilot case opportunity in which Intramotev can receive feedback from a company using Intramotev’s technology to haul goods.

While North American freight operations is Intramotev’s target audience, Europe is a potential market as well. Hauls in Europe tend to be shorter, plus freight movement via smaller vehicles such as Intramotev’s autonomous railcars could more easily avoid disrupting passenger train schedules. European freight trains are generally less than half a mile long while U.S. freight trains are typically more than two miles long.

“We see an opportunity to make railcar assets more utilized and unlock some of the capacity that’s in the rail system. Rail is a much more environmentally friendly solution than trucking, and we see this as another step toward a solution where billions of gallons of diesel aren’t being consumed by the railroads anymore,” Luchini said.

Intramotev just closed on an investment of an undisclosed amount from Idealab X, an early-stage venture capital fund, to support its mission, the company announced Thursday. Intramotev will use the funds to accelerate the development of its commercial demonstration vehicle and proprietary rail autonomy software.

“Partnering with Idealab X gives us substantial resources to bring our groundbreaking new solutions to life, as well as lean on the playbook and legacy of Idealab X, whose mission is to fund companies that are solving important problems in the world,” Luchini said in a release.

Said Idealab NY and Idealab X co-founder Jonathan Cohen, “It’s an honor to have incubated Intramotev at Idealab NY, Inc. and to have the opportunity to further partner with Intramotev and Idelab X in lessening the 37 million metric tons of greenhouse gases that locomotives emit into our atmosphere every year.”

In addition to support from Idealab X, Cathcart Rail has signed on as a strategic adviser for Intramotev. Cathcart Rail provides freight rail services such as freight and tank car repair, railcar cleaning, transloading, and track maintenance at 60 locations in 22 states.

“Cathcart Rail is excited to support Intramotev’s prototype building and testing,” said Cathcart Rail founder and CEO Casey Cathcart in a release. “The technology is a revolutionary approach to streamlining in-plant and captive service rail operations, and quite possibly the broader rail network in the future. 

“Fundamentally, it aligns with, and should improve, precision scheduled railroading methodologies of timed dispatching and delivery reliability. And I’m personally honored to be assisting the team with their development and vision for the next generation of rail operations and safety.”

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  1. Rt

    Oh just great, another mindless bogle scheme…forget using rails..uhhh, lets go ahead and get into teleporting, yes, that sounds good…lets devise it to see how many people we can put out of work…

  2. Wayne Spencer

    While Intramotiv is looking at all kinds of uses for an antonymous rail car, I do see an immediate need for carrying intermodal containers at ports of entry to alleviate congestion which has become a serious problem. These autonomous rail cars could be loaded at the port and distributed through classification rail yards and forwarded to yards toward their destinations without having to wait for either locomotives or trucks.
    This would mean speedy movement from container ships to to rail, to trucks and final destinations.
    We already have underutilized intermodal facilities that could handle these short hauls.
    The autonomous rail cars would be electrically driven with battery storage with a range sufficient to get them to these to these inland intermodal facilities.
    This system could revolutionize the movement of freight much in the same way containerization of freight did.

  3. Al.E

    So the plan is to tap into the short haul niche filled now with trucks, with equipment designed for bulk commodities that only get transported over distance with no time constraints..? Add on the fact that the equipment for the automation would cut heavily into the load capacity of the cars which would be a hard sell with aggregate cars being made as light as possible to maximize loaded tonnage. The concept would kind of make sense as boxcars for servicing large industrial parks but every time I think about it an automated switcher would make more sense since once these cars leave that industrial park they still need to be added to a train which again, will be affected by the added weight of all the batteries and traction motors.

    1. Harold S Joy

      I like the automated switcher idea….the automated railcar system takes away a lot of the financial advantages of a bunch of unpowered railcars ( cheap to build) being pulled by a few power units. Also I could see the automated cars running into scheduling issues trying to share track with conventional trains.
      But I do like the idea…I just think that it would be difficult to coordinate it.

Comments are closed.

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.