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NewsRailTechnologyTop Stories

Freight rail electrification can exist in North America — the question is where

FreightWaves recently chatted with Daniel Simounet, vice president of the transportation sector for Hitachi ABB Power Grids, about whether it’s possible to electrify the freight rail system in North America.

Simounet is responsible for working with North American customers that might need power grid devices, such as transformers and switch gears, as well as tools that can connect companies to the power grid.

Although much of the activity Simounet sees regarding rail electrification has been on the passenger rail side, such as commuter lines in Toronto becoming electrified, Simounet also believes that countries should consider what role freight rail electrification can play in the supply chain. For its part, Hitachi ABB Power Grid also supports electrification of other land transport, such as buses and trucks, as well as electrification at ports and airports.

This question-and-answer interview was edited for clarity and length.

FREIGHTWAVES: What needs to be done to advance the discussion of freight rail electrification in North America?

SIMOUNET: “This task is not just for one company or one industry. In order to be successful in pushing for electrification, there has to be three partners in the equation. First of all, there are the freight lines — the operators. They are the ones providing private investment. 

“However, I don’t think you’ll see a big return on investment because the capital costs for electrification of the infrastructure are big. And if you run the math, it doesn’t really make much sense. There are, I’m pretty sure, some exceptions for specific tracks that are shorter and have a good potential for electrification. 

“Since the capital costs are high, I think the second partner would be the government. I think there should be some incentive for electrification. There should be some policy objective that could try to push the market towards some percentage of electrification. That would help a lot — to say that, maybe, private companies should be at 10% of electrification by a certain date. I think that would help a lot. 

“The third partner would be power utilities. … There could be some interesting discussions between power utilities and freight rail companies, which own some corridors, interesting discussions between public and private entities — maybe, for example, sharing some corridors where electric utilities could use electricity transmission. There would need to be a collaboration here, because at the end of the day, the world is moving to electric power. And the grid is decarbonizing, and so this is another way to bring about decarbonization. 

“I think these three elements are important. And then you have the fourth element, which is us, the manufacturer of technology. We have great technology that we can offer to solve this issue.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Are there transportation modes or stakeholders that are more primed and ready for electrification? And is there a significant difference in electrifying trucks or port operations versus the railroads?

SIMOUNET: “I don’t really know. But I can tell you that my feeling is that port electrification should be the first target. Ports to warehouse, it’s a short distance where the traffic is known and there is a lot of frequency. … The ports-to-warehouse application would be similar to the kind of application you would see from the electric truck industry. This is because there is the possibility to recharge at some point. 

“The electrification of a train is not anymore just a question of putting a catenary wire on top of the line and then you run an electric train. Today, because of battery improvements, we are seeing applications where vehicles can recharge: the buses, the big Class 8 trucks. We see companies looking at battery trains. So, we can see a mix of solutions, where a short line can even run on battery trains and they can recharge on some portion of the line or at the end of the line. … These are the types of solutions that exist today that have been in pilot for different applications. 

“At Hitachi, we have a very interesting technology on the wayside aspect that acts like energy storage. We have some converter technology — flash-charging technology, we call it — that could be applied to this type of system and where you could recharge very quickly. You could be a train at the end of the line or you could be at a portion of the line using what we call in-motion charging. And then you can operate on some tracks with no catenaries, with no significant investment in this kind of thing. So there are technologies. 

“Of course, there’s a limit to the technology. You have to do an assessment for that, and that’s also something we can do. We have some simulation tools to help private companies to simulate these types of routes and see if it could work. We could run it through a freight line. It’s the same challenge.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Has the technology that you’ve described been applied in Europe, where some freight rail lines have been using electricity for a while?

SIMOUNET: “We applied a couple of different technologies. The big problem is that we are not on just the same page as Europe. In Europe, the electrification naturally is through wires. They already have a nice network of wires. So what we are deploying over there is technology to improve their existing network. However, in the U.K., they are going through the electrification of the short lines, which right now run on diesel. 

“If 40% of freight trains in Europe use diesel-electric systems, they are starting to look at how do they start to electrify that 40%? And that is probably the same status of what we’re trying to do or could explore doing in North America. So in terms of using technology that is focused on battery and energy storage, I think it’s really new for everybody here. 

“The reason why it’s new is because 10 years ago, the battery had not evolved to this type of capacity and this type of range. Now we can even consider having boats — ferries — use this type of application with batteries. So there is a completely new market opening for us.” 

FREIGHTWAVES: The freight rail industry has been focused on producing battery-electric locomotives and then after that, the hydrogen-powered ones. What are the timelines for these offerings?

SIMOUNET: “We want everyone to focus on where we can apply today the technology that already exists. And my opinion is that there are some tracks, there are some lines, where we can jump right away on battery-electric operation. And the technology exists because you can see it being applied on transit.

“You will always say, ‘Well, my industry is different. It’s bigger. It’s more complex.’ But at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure there is an application — and maybe it’s a small part of the application — but there is an application where we can start to do electrification using batteries. 

“I also feel that today we can start to look at hydrogen through pilot programs. That’s what we see now. In my opinion — and this is just my opinion — the hydrogen will be an interesting play for the longer [distance] range because the density of electricity is interesting here compared to today’s battery. But hydrogen is still linked to battery technology. I don’t think you have a technology that is pure hydrogen. The train will still have a battery on board, plus hydrogen fuel cells or something like that. 

“My opinion is that it’s a question of storage here. And either it’s hydrogen for longer [distances] but it’s still through an electric application and batteries would still be involved. My feeling is that someday we can go from a trucker line — a shorter application — and we can grow and develop from that. But if we don’t put some real desire or some real incentive and real policies in place, I don’t think we’ll make the effort. 

“It’s a mix of both. At the end of the day, the infrastructure can accept both the battery technology that already exists and the new technology being developed in pilot programs. You probably can’t use electrification between large cities that have some distance between them, but you can use battery-powered trains from a port or an airport facility to an industrial area. That’s the vision of what we believe here — that the industry needs some new momentum here to start to consider moving toward electrification. … That means collaboration. It means also breaking the silo where you have the power utility, the private and the government putting forth efforts together to make it happen.” 

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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.

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