On Track to Lower Emissions

Biodiesel has not been greatly incorporated into the locomotive industry for a number of reasons, but that may be poised to change.
By Katie Schroeder and Anna Simet | June 03, 2022

While decarbonization goals have been widely adopted across most North American transportation sectors, rail has been seemingly behind the curve. That’s slowly changing, however, as more companies are investing the time, money and research to facilitate adoption of biodiesel and higher blends—and as of recently, renewable diesel blends, too. Brightline, Progress Rail, Union Pacific Rail, BNSF Railway and others have ongoing initiatives to do so.

B5 from the Beginning
Using biodiesel isn’t new for high-speed rail company Brightline, the only privately owned and operated intercity passenger railroad in the U.S. “Brightline has been using biodiesel since the start of service,” says Vanessa Alfonso, director of media relations for Brightline, which is owned by Florida East Coast Railway.  Alfonso explains that the company will have a total of 21 electric-biodiesel locomotives by the end of 2022, each of which run on a 5%, ultra-low sulfur biodiesel blend.

Brightline’s trains use two locomotives powered by a 16-cylinder, 4,000 hp Cummins EPA Tier-IV compliant diesel electric engine. “Tier 4 emission standards are EPA’s most stringent emission standard for nonroad engines and requires the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, which results in an approximate 90% reduction of emissions as compared to Tier 0 locomotives,” she explains. Local company Florida Power and Light supplies Brightline with a custom blend biodiesel designed for their locomotives.

Alfonso explains that Brightline trains have an increased efficiency of 378% compared to traveling by car and an efficiency of 44% over air travel.

The first Brightline railway route was a 67-mile trip between West Palm Beach and Miami. It began construction in 2015, was completed in 2017 and started service in 2018, according to Alfonso.

Construction of a new phase, a double track running from West Palm Beach to Cocoa Beach, began construction in 2019. “Phase 2 also includes 35 miles of corridor to Orlando International Airport where a new rail alignment was constructed along SR 528,” Alfonso says. “Once at OIA, the 3.5-mile corridor going south through the active airport (Zone 2) was realigned through and represents one of the most complex and challenging areas for construction in the entire project.”

Another route under construction runs from Aventura and Boca Raton, and will be completed in fall 2022, and plans are to continue to use B5 in all Brightline trains.

Up to B20: Progress Rail and Union Pacific
As a Caterpillar company, Progress Rail is one of the largest integrated diversified providers of rolling stock and infrastructure solutions and technologies for the global rail industry, which includes battery electric locomotives and hydrogen, and increasingly, renewable fuels. “We are extremely active in the testing and evaluation of higher blends of biodiesel for both rail and marine applications,” says Michael Klabunde, director of power systems product management at Progress Rail. “Biodiesel and renewable diesel fuels offer great advantages for customers to make an immediate impact in reducing greenhouse gasses.”

Recently, Progress Rail approved the use of up to 20% biodiesel blends in specific EMD locomotive series operated by Union Pacific railroad. Previously, the locomotives were approved to operate at 5%. The updated fuel recommendation comes after testing high-horsepower locomotives used for hauling freight long distances, monitoring performance for things such as fuel consumption, as well as impact on engine oil and fuel filters. “The increase in the allowable use of biodiesel content from 5% to 20% in all EMD 645 and 710 engines is a very positive step in reducing GHG emissions for our rail, marine and industrial customers,” Klabunde explains. “This jump in approval to B20 allows for increased reductions without radical changes to our customers’ fueling infrastructure or expensive upgrades to their fleets.”

The use of higher biodiesel blends has been studied much more extensively in road vehicles, but that research is serving as a basis for adoption into rail. “There are many similarities between road vehicles and rail, and much of the developments and experiences are being leveraged,” Klabunde says. “It is important to remember locomotives generally have much higher duty cycles, operate in harsher environments, and consume much greater quantities of fuel on an annual basis.  Aspects related to temperature, fuel flow, filtering and wear all need to be evaluated. Additionally, locomotives are subject to separate emissions regulations.”

Klabunde says Progress Rail has a broad range of additional testing and observation plans in place—for example, a recently completed series of stationary testing with a broad range of blends of biodiesel and renewable diesel. “These tests have been focused on engine performance and exhaust emissions,” Klabunde says. “Our field tests for fuels are focused on longer-term engine reliability and durability, while also investigating the seasonality presented by high blends of biodiesel.”

Additionally, Progress Rail is working with customers in Asia and South America who have fleets of the company’s locomotives running biodiesel blends, and more testing activities are underway with Union Pacific. “These are for our 1010J engine for our EMD SD70Ace-T4 unit, and we expect to provide updates to the industry as we learn more,” Klabunde says.

The ultimate focus, Klabunde adds, is to enable customers to hit emission targets and do so without radical changes in fueling infrastructure, while maximizing the value and longevity of their existing EMD engines, whether that application be rail, marine or power generation.

While Progress Rail’s engines support varying blends of biodiesel and renewable diesel, there is more development work, testing and validation required, Klabunde emphasizes. “As an OEM, we must ensure the performance, durability and reliability our customers expect while complying with regulations. In addition to engines, there are some challenges related to fuel infrastructure and storage across the wide range of environmental conditions in North America. We are working with our customers to ensure proper controls are in place.”

One of those challenges is potentially fuel availability, but the fast-growing market is reassuring. “According to some estimates, the North American rail industry uses approximately 3.5 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually,” Klabunde says. “If this were all B20, it would equate to a need of approximately 700 million gallons of biodiesel. There is inherently limited capacity in the biodiesel market, but major fuel refiners and providers are investing in capacity.  It truly is a dynamic time in the fuel market.”

Another one of Progress Rail’s partnerships is with Canadian National Railway and Renewable Energy Group, which was announced earlier in the year, and it aims to test high-level biodiesel and renewable diesel blends, up to 100%, through trials and qualifications. The program “will allow CN and Progress Rail to better understand the long-term durability and operational impacts of renewable fuels on locomotives, especially in cold weather, and plan needed modifications to fully leverage their usage over the next decade.”

Several other rail companies are working on similar initiatives, including Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF, both of which have partnered with Wabtec Corp.

Wabtec, Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF
Union Pacific Railroad will begin using a higher biodiesel blend in locomotives it acquired from Wabtec, with a goal of increasing the percentage of low-carbon fuels consumed to 10% of its total diesel consumption by 2025 and 20% by 2030. Per the partnership, in the second half of the year, Union Pacific will begin testing with B20 and R55 renewable diesel on trains powered by Wabtec FDL engines operating in California. Wabtec locomotives were previously approved for B5 and R30 for locomotive engines, of which there are approximately 11,000 in operations today with railroads across the world.  As testing progresses, according to Wabtec, it is anticipated that higher percentages of biofuels will be used.

The partnership with BNSF Railway is similar—beginning in Q2 of this year, the companies will demonstrate the performance of B20 and R55 in revenue service on Wabtec Tier 3 and Tier 4 Evolution Series locomotives in California. BNSF will operate the locomotives between Barstow and Los Angeles, California. The project comes on the heels of a BNSF pilot project conducted last year, with a battery-electric locomotive developed by Wabtec in commercial service between Barstow and Stockton that, according to Wabtec, showed an 11% reduction in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions compared with standard diesel units operated on the same route.

The rail industry is intently focused on reducing its environmental footprint by exploring emerging technologies, says Bob Bremmer, group vice president for Wabtec’s Fleet Innovation and Transformation division. "Biofuels provide a unique near-term opportunity to have a significant impact on reducing carbon intensity." 

In summary, though behind the curve compared to other transportation sectors when it comes to low-carbon fuels adoption, the rail industry—with the assistance of technology providers, fuel suppliers and other stakeholders—is well on track to change that.

Author: Anna Simet
Contact: [email protected]

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