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No engine, no oil: Firm pitches battery-powered trains

PITTSBURGH — From the outside, the locomotive whirring along Wabtec’s test tract in Erie looks almost like any other. The operator cab is pretty standard, too.

It’s in the guts that things take a turn.

There’s no engine. No oil. No steel levers or red valve handles.

Instead, it’s a quiet air-conditioned room that looks like the inside of a computer data center. The guts are the batteries, some 20,000 of them.

Wabtec Corp., the North Shore-based rail technology company, plans to pilot its new battery-powered locomotive on a 350-mile route along the hills of California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The computer on board the train will calculate how to best distribute energy between the battery-driven locomotive and the diesel engines on the train, when to recharge the batteries through braking, and when to run on battery power to reduce emissions and noise.

The hybrid freight train will be operated by the nation’s largest railroad, BNSF, and is intended to be a demonstration of how the new technology improves the old.

The pilot project will be the first to use a battery-powered locomotive as part of a heavy-haul train, which typically lugs thousands of tons.

If batteries now seem intrinsic, even unremarkable staples of everything we use in modern life, trains haven’t really gotten the memo yet. That’s not all that surprising, said Chris Rahn, co-director of the Battery and Energy Storage Technology Center at Penn State, who worked with Wabtec on the battery design.

“The rail industry is much more traditional,” he said. “Making the case for battery electric in particular is challenging, because you need a lot of batteries and you have to justify it on a cost basis.”

It’s not like smartphones, which last a few years, or cars that get traded in for a new model.

A locomotive is a decades-long investment that costs several million dollars. Convincing railroads to buy a new, more expensive one is a heavy haul.

Also, oil is cheap, there’s no penalty for carbon emissions, and it’s a bad time to ask lenders for capital.

But in other ways, the time is just right for battery-powered trains because, as Alan Hamilton, Wabtec’s vice president of engineering put it, “the locomotive needed to become smart enough” to demonstrate their value.

“It’s not that we woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s try this,'” Hamilton said.

It was a logical extension of work that already was being done for decades: improving power electronics to transfer energy more efficiently, developing software that acts like an intelligent cruise control operator and taking advantage of the vast improvements in energy storage.

That last part didn’t come from Wabtec. The rail company was happy to sit back and let electric vehicle makers take the lead. The battery pack inside its new locomotive uses the same technology as you’d find in a Tesla, Hamilton said.

Wabtec told investors during a presentation earlier this year that it expects to begin commercializing battery-powered locomotives within three to five years.

“Clearly, there’s going to be early adopters,” Hamilton said. Although Wabtec expects incorporating one battery-powered locomotive into a train will bring up to 30% in fuel savings, it’s likely the first customers to become interested in this technology will be ones operating in areas of the U.S. where air quality regulators dictate emission reductions.

The BNSF project grew out of a $22 million grant from the California Air Resources Board, a government agency that oversees air pollution in the state.

Last month, Wabtec announced that New York Metropolitan Transit Authority ordered 25 of its hybrid shunter locomotives, which are used to move around other locomotives. These machines can switch between diesel and battery power.

The idea of reducing diesel emissions inside New York City subway tunnels by running in battery mode was the main attraction, Mr. Hamilton said.

Seeds have spread

More than a decade ago, Penn State’s Rahn was involved with another first of its kind train project with Norkfolk Southern Corp., the Virginia-based freight railroad. With federal funding, the state university helped Norfolk Southern retrofit a 1960s-era switchyard locomotive with a battery pack.

The “engine” was named NS 999, but some in the industry called it “the green weenie” because of the bright green paint and its zero-emission profile.

The original battery pack didn’t work as intended, and a few years into its operation, the railroad replaced it with lead-carbon batteries made by New Castle-based Axion Energy Inc., which liquidated in bankruptcy in 2018 (not to be confused with Aquion Energy, another Pittsburgh-based battery maker that went bankrupt in 2017). It’s not clear what happened to the locomotive after that.

The learning curve was steep, and, as with most things, the first try isn’t the success story, Rahn said.

“That was really pioneering work,” he said, having lost track of NS 999 years ago.

But the seeds of that project and others like it already have spread across the rail industry.

Battery-powered locomotives are appearing in mass transit, particularly in Europe where the effort to electrify trains is more advanced than in the U.S.

Electrification has long been a goal for mass transit systems, but putting up new overhead wires or building a third rail isn’t practical everywhere. In these instances, where there is a gap in infrastructure, battery-powered trains are being used as a bridge or as a last-mile solution to extend a route.

Bombardier, which has operations in the Pittsburgh region, converted a European transit train into an electric hybrid that can be driven with electric power or batteries. In a presentation to investors earlier this year, the Canadian company said its Talent 3 train, which has lithium-ion batteries strapped to the roof, lets trains in Germany run on more than 30% of nonelectrified lines.

Brookville Equipment Corp., a manufacturer based in Jefferson County, started putting lithium-ion batteries on streetcars in 2015 for a transit project in Dallas where the vehicles could travel over a viaduct without wires.

By 2018, it had contracts for these streetcars to Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, and Detroit.

Hamilton said some of Wabtec’s customers who run mining railroads are interested in the technology for portions of a short track where electrification would be too expensive.

“I think we’re going to see more and more of that,” he said.

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