Railroads focus on natural gas

U.S. railroads are looking at natural gas to meet a 2015 deadline for lowering emissions, but it’s unlikely that more than a handful of locomotives will be using the fuel by then.

“We don’t want to kid ourselves about how long a transformation will take,” said David Hill, vice president of operations with Encana Corp., which is working with Canadian National Railway on a project to power locomotives using liquefied natural gas.

He and other speakers at the World LNG Fuels Conference, which ended Wednesday at the George R. Brown Conference Center, said natural gas could help railroads lower emissions and save on skyrocketing diesel fuel bills.

But it may take decades.

Hill used the industry’s transformation from steam engines to diesel as a guideline and suggested it may be 2036 before 90 percent of the nation’s locomotives are converted.

That’s based on the 33 years it took for diesel engines to jump from 10 percent of the market to 90 percent.

It could be sooner, he said, acknowledging the incentives. “But we definitely have some hurdles.”

The idea isn’t new: Railroads have tried versions of natural gas engines — including those run on propane — at various times over the decades.

Larry Rodney, a systems engineer at Electro Motive Diesel involved in that company’s efforts to develop a natural gas-fueled locomotive, said a 2007 study by several railroad companies determined that natural gas wouldn’t solve the industry’s emissions and performance issues.

But that was then. The idea is back, partly because of escalating diesel prices.

Hill said U.S. railroads use 10 million gallons of diesel a day, at a cost of $31 million a day.

Couple that with tighter Environmental Protection Agency regulations affecting railroads that will kick in in 2015, and natural gas has begun to look more attractive.

Rodney said his company’s plan, in partnership with Westport, Canadian National and Gaz Metro, should be ready for demonstration in 2014.

Another natural gas solution is already on the rails.

Leslie Olson, a consultant for Tacoma, Wash.-based Energy Conversions, Inc., described the conversion of two diesel locomotives owned by Canadian National to run on a mix of diesel and natural gas.

They were first tested Sept. 5 and have been in regular service since Oct. 27, Olson said.

He said the conversion reduced diesel consumption by 76 percent.

Despite the progress, questions remain, including some of the most basic, such as how the locomotives would be refueled.

But Kenneth Paul, head of business development at Cosmodyne, who served as moderator of the panel, said that problem would work itself out.

“If the business gets that robust, I’m sure the logitstics and supply people will figure that out,” he said.