Railroad testing of liquefied natural gas as potential locomotive fuel forthcoming

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), in a company news bulletin, announced it will commence with the testing later this year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) on a limited quantity of locomotives. The pilot program is being conducted to evaluate the practicability of LNG as a viable diesel fuel alternative.

“‘The use of liquefied natural gas as an alternative fuel is a potential transformational change for our railroad and for our industry,’ said

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway freight train near Essex, Calif.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway freight train near  Essex, Calif.

[BNSF Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Matthew K.] Rose. ‘While there are daunting technical and regulatory challenges still to be faced, this pilot project is an important first step that will allow BNSF to evaluate the technical and economic viability of the use of liquefied natural gas in through-freight service, potentially reducing fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions, thereby providing environmental and energy security benefits to our nation,” as was brought forth in the company news bulletin.

Compared to diesel, as a transportation fuel, the use of natural gas produces less in the way of particulates and greenhouse gas emissions, the railroad in the announcement declared.

This is very exciting!

Although the upcoming trial is noteworthy indeed, it is, however, not an industry “first.”

Burlington Northern, before it joined forces in 1995 with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (known more familiarly as the Santa Fe) to become today’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, operated locomotives using natural gas in the 1980s and 1990s and “… also tested LNG switch locomotives in Los Angeles until they reached the end of their useful life a few years ago,” according to information in the company news bulletin.

If as a result of the tests the concept pans out, then this could indeed be precedent-setting.

“‘The changed market for natural gas in the United States is a critical part of our decision to explore it as a locomotive fuel and in this pilot we will test natural gas engine technology in railroad service’ Rose added. ‘We will be working with the equipment manufacturers, the various regulatory agencies and government officials to address the necessary actions to accomplish this.’”

Widespread railroad industry implementation of natural gas for locomotive operation remains to be seen.

But the fact that BNSF will be embarking on a pilot testing program, it is in this regard and with respect to emissions-reduction efforts that things are looking up!

Published by Alan Kandel