Railroad Switch

Railroad companies have been slow to embrace biodiesel as a fuel for locomotives. Once the U.S. EPA's low-sulfur diesel ruling takes hold in June, however, the industry may be more apt to make the switch.
By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | March 15, 2007
Locomotives haul passengers across the country and railcars across industrial sites. Their uses are as diverse as their loads and the many companies that operate them. Major railroad companies, short lines, passenger excursion trains and industrial switch engines all have one thing in common: Those that are powered by diesel use incredible amounts of the fuel. If the biodiesel industry can prove its utility in locomotive engines and demonstrate cost effectiveness, it could create a new market for the renewable fuel.

In May 2004, the U.S. EPA published the Clean Air Nonroad Diesel Rule, designed to dramatically reduce soot and emissions from construction, agricultural and industrial diesel-powered equipment. Locomotive and marine engines were exempted from certain engine modification requirements in the rule (the EPA recently proposed a program specific to these engines). However, locomotive and marine engines are required to comply with the fuel section of the 2004 ruling. According to the EPA, the rule reduces nonroad diesel fuel sulfur levels in two steps.

Locomotive and marine diesel fuel will first be reduced from uncontrolled levels to the low-sulfur diesel level of 500 parts per million (ppm) starting in June 2007, and the second step to ultra-low sulfur diesel (15 ppm cap) will go into effect in June 2012 (all other nonroad diesel engines must comply at the 15 ppm level in June 2010). The decreased lubricity of low-sulfur diesel could be an opportunity for the biodiesel industry to access this market. "Indications are that low concentrations of biodiesel might be sufficient to raise the lubricity to acceptable levels," the EPA ruling reads. "Thus, we believe that biodiesel is a feasible technology that could help support today's clean diesel fuel program."

Regardless of the EPA's endorsement, the rail industry hasn't embraced biodiesel. In fact, it's difficult to even find companies that are using it for these applications. One short line that is using biodiesel blends is Minnesota Prairie Line Inc. (MPL) a wholly owned subsidiary of the Twin Cities & Western Railroad based in Glencoe, Minn. MPL is the agent and operator of 94 miles of track between Norwood and Hanley Falls, Minn., which is owned by the Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad Authority.

MPL began using B2 in its two Caterpillar locomotives in 2005, according to Senior Vice President and General Manager Mark Wegner. MPL runs through Redwood Falls, Minn., where biodiesel producer FUMPA Biofuels is located. After encouragement from Redwood County Commissioner Gene Short, the rail, which was already hauling FUMPA biodiesel, agreed to use biodiesel blends if it could get a waiver from Caterpillar, which took nine months.

In 2006, the rail used variations between B2 and B10, Wegner says. In that year, the railroad consumed 114,000 gallons of blended diesel fuel, of which 5,700 gallons were biodiesel. MPL only uses biodiesel blends when it's priced competitively, Wegner says, which is about 20 percent of the time. Before MPL started using biodiesel, the company specified the standards it required to its fuel vendors. "We're proud to say that we have no problems using biodiesel," he says, even when Minnesota had problems with off-spec biodiesel in the winter of 2005-'06.

Tennessee's Locomotion
The opportunity to expand the use of biodiesel hasn't gone unnoticed by some renewable fuel proponents. Jonathan Overly, executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition (ETCFC), says he's working with six different companies to encourage them to switch to biodiesel blends. He wants east Tennessee to be the hub for biodiesel use in locomotive engines.

The ETCFC focuses on a variety of specific markets, Overly says. "We are spending some time and effort trying to diversify biodiesel use in the area so we have many sectors using biodiesel in the community," he says. His efforts are paying off. Last year, there were 2 million gallons of biodiesel consumed in east Tennessee, and that's not counting the rail effort, he says.

At least one company, Gerdau Ameristeel Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn., has switched to using biodiesel blends in its locomotive engines. On Oct. 18, 2006, the company switched its diesel fleet of nearly 30 engines to a B5 blend. Reliability Engineer Bruce Parker was the force behind the switch. He also notes that the Knoxville mill was the first of Gerdau Ameristeel's North American plants to use B5.

Parker says he plans to increase the entire fleet to higher biodiesel blends. Gerdau Ameristeel owns two track mobiles and leases a full-size switch engine. The company it leases from had no problem with the B5, but Parker says the company must be convinced with data and usage history before the mill is approved to use higher blends. "They're holding back at the moment, but I think we'll convince them to move up," he says. "Particularly in the rail industry, they want hard facts. We have to gradually gather facts on the usage we have on diesel engines and demonstrate the fact that there are no maintenance problems, and that it is very cost effective."

So far, Overly says Gerdau Ameristeel's switch is the first known use of biodiesel in rail in the southeast United States, per his checking with other Clean Cities coalitions in the South. He doesn't want the movement to stop there, however which is why he approached other companies in east Tennessee about using biodiesel blends. He has targeted companies that run short tourist lines or those that use locomotive engines within their industrial complex, such as Gerdau Ameristeel. Overly started promoting the rail use of biodiesel a couple years ago, but it wasn't until late 2006-when Gerdau Ameristeel made the switch-that the issue gained momentum. "They brought this issue to the forefront, and we helped push it over the edge," Overly says. "Now we're getting connections to several others. We're tapping into the right contacts to get things going."

Another industrial user of biodiesel is Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn. It switched to B10 in the winter months and B30 the rest of the year in its 350 diesel engines. Fleet Manager Darren Curtis says the chemical company switched to biodiesel for environmental reasons-biodiesel helps the company meet air attainment laws. Eastman also felt it had a responsibility as a major industry to set the pace.

The only engines that don't run on biodiesel are the four Electromotive Diesel Inc. (EMD) switch cars Eastman uses to transport materials on the 40 miles of track within its complex. EMD locomotives are exempted because they are contracted from another company, Curtis explains. However, he says his company just started working with that company late last year. "They seem to be open to the idea of at least starting out at a low blend," Curtis says. "I think what it's going to take is research-providing them information about other companies that are using it." He hopes that within the next month he'll be able to provide sufficient evidence for the rail company to feel comfortable with Eastman using biodiesel blends in the locomotives.

Overly has also initiated a discussion about biodiesel use with the Tennessee Valley Railroad in Chattanooga. The company operates its 12 EMD locomotives on a seasonal basis as a tourist scenic rail excursion. This small operation budgets for up to 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year, according to company President Tim Andrews.

Andrews is hesitant to try biodiesel in his company's engines because the effect on the engines hasn't been demonstrated. "I don't know if enough research has been done," he says, adding that he's waiting to see what the rail industry, as a whole does.

"At the face of it, there shouldn't be any issues, but there hasn't been very much experience," Andrews says. "Once it's proven to us that there isn't a maintenance or downside issue then sure, we're willing to do what we can for air quality."

Getting the proof that biodiesel works in rail applications seems to be a recurring theme. However, there are other issues that are unique to the rail industry, such as supply. The rail industry goes through a lot of diesel. "Are they able to get it in quantities in key fueling locations they need?" Andrews asks. "If you walked into Chattanooga and said you wanted 1 million gallons of biodiesel per day, you couldn't find it. No one is using the volumes that the rail is using. There is a supply and demand issue, and that affects price as well. You're talking millions and millions of gallons. Even a penny per gallon makes a big difference in cost."

Also unique is the fact that the engines are made using copper, which is more flexible than steel and can better handle the vibrations. So railroad companies must know how biodiesel reacts to the copper in these engines.

Waivers from the engine manufacturers may help, and Wegner says the waiver is very important. He explains that the cost of locomotives-$1.5 million to $2 million-can be cost prohibitive when taking risks. "If the manufacturer says, 'Don't use biodiesel,' they won't use biodiesel," Wegner says. "They don't want a $2 million asset that the manufacturer won't support."

EMD has issued a warranty statement regarding biodiesel use in its engines. "It is the responsibility of the user to obtain the proper local, regional, and/or national exemptions required for the use of biodiesel in any emission-regulated EMD engine," the statement reads. "EMD does not approve or prohibit the use of biodiesel fuels or biodiesel blends with distillate diesel fuel."

Proof may have to come from field testing. "Someone using it a long time would have to prove that it doesn't negatively change the lifecycle and its components," Andrews says. "Unlike the trucking industry-where a lot has been tested-in following the literature of the railroad, I just don't see any real evidence of commercial trials."

Major railroad companies aren't likely to conduct commercial trials, leaving it up to the industrial sites and short lines to open the market to biodiesel. "Short lines are more on the edge," Wegner says. "We're willing to try innovative things. We can do it in a controlled environment."

Curtis thinks these issues don't fully explain why the rail industry hasn't embraced biodiesel. He speculates that biodiesel proponents may have ignored the rail industry, thinking that a train is nothing like a tractor-trailer. "But (a locomotive) is a diesel powered engine and uses diesel fuel," he says.

Perhaps it's time to get these engines all aboard.

Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at (701) 746-8385 or [email protected].
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