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Technology plays key role in decarbonizing freight rail: Wabtec exec

Wabtec and partners seek to create alternative-fueled locomotives and use technology to increase track capacity

FreightWaves recently chatted with Eric Gebhardt, chief technology officer for rail technology and equipment manufacturer Wabtec (NYSE: WAB), about how technology plays a role in meeting companies’ sustainability goals. 

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

FREIGHTWAVES: Can you talk about Wabtec’s involvement in battery-electric locomotives and the electrification of freight rail? Wabtec has been conducting tests on a battery-electric locomotive with BNSF (NYSE: BRK) in California.

GEBHARDT:That’s our FLXdrive [battery-electric locomotive] out in California. It goes from Barstow to Stockton, and we’re working in collaboration with BNSF and the California Air Resources Board. FLXdrive has run over 10,000 miles and delivered an average of 10% reduction in fuel consumption across the train. This is the equivalent of 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel saved and approximately 50 tons of CO2 emissions reduced. And so, that’s a significant accomplishment there.

“The battery-electric locomotive is set up in the consist [a group of locomotives] with two diesel electric locomotives. It’s a three-locomotive consist. … It’s almost like a hybrid vehicle but it’s a three-unit vehicle.

“It’s not just running test runs every once in a while. It’s actually running in revenue service [an advanced testing stage]. So, it’s a big step forward. The first of its kind. That [battery system] was at 2.4 megawatt hours. Our next version will be at 6 megawatt hours, and that will be able to save 30% in fuel burn and 30% in efficiency — a big step forward. 

“One of the things to remember about the batteries is that the real value is through the regenerative braking. It doesn’t necessarily leave fully charged. It doesn’t get to the end point fully charged. But during the run, anytime the brakes are coming on, we’re charging the batteries. …

“And we have a software overlay called Trip Optimizer. And what this does is that it looks at the entire terrain, the grade of the track, where the hills are coming, and it optimizes the use of the [battery[] power … and with the charged battery, you get to that 10% savings we have. Now, and similarly when we get the battery size up larger, we’ll be able to get up to 30% on the savings, which is a huge step forward.

“What’s exciting about the batteries is that they’re going to continue to get better and better and more cost effective over time. The cost curves are coming down and the capabilities going up. … They’re already economically viable on a good percentage of the track based on the hills and the grades and such. They’ll only become more so going forward. …

“And then longer term, we see hydrogen coming in as hybrid locomotives, so that the diesel electrics that are in there today could be replaced with green hydrogen hybrid locomotives. Put those in the consist with the battery-electrics and you’ll have zero-emissions freight trains operating in the future.”

(Image: Wabtec)

FREIGHTWAVES: Is Wabtec’s battery-electric locomotives technology available beyond North America?

GEBHARDT: “Yes. What’s exciting is that it can apply anywhere globally that has diesel electrics or other types of freight rail today. And we’re actually quoting it today to some of the international applications, and so it’d be great to export this technology from the U.S. to the world.”

FREIGHTWAVES: What work is being done now with the hydrogen-powered locomotives?

GEBHARDT: “There are some tests going on with transit, trolleys, other things. Some in Europe. … We’re paying close attention to fuel cell capabilities, and we’re working through figuring out when fuel cells will be ruggedized enough to go ahead and be put in our applications. If you think about a passenger car today, a passenger car goes a hundred thousand miles its entire life. A locomotive today goes a hundred thousand miles a year. The amount of power that is necessary and the total power input is significantly more, but we are working through how to rapidly get to a prototype.”

FREIGHTWAVES: How does Wabtec’s work with the battery-electric locomotives fit in with the Freight 2030 technology initiative between partners Carnegie Mellon University and short line operator Genesee and Wyoming?

GEBHARDT: “We want to be able to have the hydrogen hybrid locomotives working in consist with a battery electric locomotive. We want to go ahead and show that we have zero-emissions locomotive technology. …

“The battery electric gives credibility. We’ve already proven that technology. We have that out there, and now we’re going to expand on it and we want to go ahead and step toward the hydrogen.

“The second part of it is trying to work on the controls, the signaling, the AI [artificial intelligence] technology to expand capacity on existing track. How do we take the track that’s there and try to increase the capacity of that track by 50%? We’re working on the main lines, and also working in the yards, working with the ports, working with the area … to expand capacity. …

“The more we can move by rail, the better it is for emissions, the better it is for decongesting some of our roadways. … That’s a key part of the initiative, not just decarbonizing the locomotives but also getting more traffic on existing track.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Are there concerns about whether there will be enough materials to produce the batteries or the fuel cells for these alternative locomotives?

GEBHARDT: “What we’ve seen is that the cost continues to come down and the supply chains to grow in order meet the needs overall.

“What we’re looking for in rail would be a significantly smaller supply than what’s being used in, say, automotive. We’re going to ride on some of the work that the automotive groups are doing and pull off of that existing supply chain. The costs continue to come down and the supply continues to grow, and so it’s good. 

“When we look at hydrogen, there’s plenty of hydrogen around. We’re looking at how to get the green hydrogen. We’re looking at an entire value stream — we want to make sure we’re working not only on the locomotives and not only on the capacity improvements, but also on the entire supply chain. 

“How do we make sure that we can get hydrogen where we need it? How do we make sure it’s green hydrogen? How do we go ahead and charge these battery-electric locomotives, looking at that whole ecosystem? What’s exciting to me is that for rail, there’s a couple of thousand fueling stations in the U.S. … They would be easier to transition to electrification and to hydrogen than, say, the tens of thousands of gasoline fueling stations for automobiles and for trucks today.

“We think it’s a much more practical challenge, and that’s why we’re excited about Freight 2030. Carnegie Mellon has a lot of logistics capability, a lot of AI capability on how to do the planning for all of that. Genesee and Wyoming, the largest short line in the U.S., has also signed up to be a partner on this with us, and they’re going to give us access on tracks and such. And so, I think coming together, we can go ahead and pull the right solutions on this.”

(Photo: Wabtec)

FREIGHTWAVES: Why is the Freight 2030 initiative seeking government support?

GEBHARDT: “The government portion of this is to accelerate. It allows us to move faster than we could move by ourselves. If we look at Europe, if we look at China … their governments have already stepped in to help with some of this, be it batteries or hydrogen or other areas. For the U.S. to become an exporter of high-tech capabilities, working together in a public-private partnership allows us to accelerate.”

FREIGHTWAVES: How has the industry reception been to decarbonization? Do people still need convincing, or does decarbonization look like a goal that the freight rail industry wants to pursue?

GEBHARDT: “As one of the key suppliers to the industry, we want to be creating optionality for our customers to meet their decarbonization goals. Many customers — U.S.-based and even internationally based customers — have decarbonization goals. They have sustainability goals. We want to create the right options for them that are economically viable to help them meet these goals. And so, we’ve had a lot of interest around the battery electric, We’ve had a lot of interest around some of the capacity items. And the discussions are really getting going around hydrogen now also. And so it’s exciting to see all of this playing out. “

FREIGHTWAVES: How will the freight rail industry benefit from Freight 2030?

GEBHARDT: “Freight 2030 overall is really trying to move the industry forward through decarbonization and additional capacity improvements here. The safety portion of it is also incredibly important. Rail is very much safer than the roads to move freight, but we can make it even safer going forward by using some of the controls, the AI technology. 

“It’s really going to be very beneficial to the economy. Jobs is a big piece of this also. What we’re looking to do is create a lot of jobs here in the U.S. — do the manufacturing, do the retraining, doing a lot of development here — and the numbers we’re looking at are a quarter-million direct and indirect jobs as a part of this initiative.”

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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.