Electric, steam, diesel, and LNG: Locomotive development on a roll

Back on Jan. 17th in “CATS: Diesel-electric versus pure electric train operations – pros and cons,” I wrote: “I was born in the age of the diesel loco. Steam as locomotive propulsion power, although reaching a zenith right around World War II, quite interestingly, maintains a presence, albeit a shadow of its former self by comparison. By the time diesel-electric motive power arrived on the American scene beginning about the late 1940s, steam had served as a viable propulsion power technology for a century-and-a-quarter at least. Incidentally, electricity as a power source first showed up in 1888.”

I then went on to state: “Looking at railroad operations, outside of intercity (or interurban) and urban passenger rail that by-and-large employ electricity to run trains, the bulk of operations in America is diesel-electric-technology oriented. But the decision to go that route I believe had as much to do with the availability of fuel as it did the expense of building expensive electric infrastructure even though over the long haul electric operation is more cost effective, not to mention environmentally friendly as long as that electricity is generated cleanly.”

In concluding, I opined:

Train“As America begins to tread new surface transportation territory with high-speed rail, power for such will be via electricity – clean electricity.

“Today, diesel and electric. Tomorrow, who knows?!”

That’s right. Who knows?! Could the future be liquefied natural gas (LNG)?


As it relates, in: “Railroad testing of liquefied natural gas as a potential locomotive fuel forthcoming,” in summing the situation up I wrote: “Widespread railroad industry implementation of natural gas for locomotive operation remains to be seen.

“But the fact that [Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway] 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!”

DSCN2812 (340x255)But, I have to ask: With electricity being extremely abundant in that such is an energy source that seems to be in limitless supply, if a railroad is contemplating switching from one locomotive-propulsion-power-energy-supply type to another regarding train operations, why LNG over electricity? My thought? The main driver here is probably cost.

What about steam locomotive development – where is this right now?

Clean steam?

Being that there are multiple ways of generating steam, as this is being written, probably the cleanest way to facilitate this process is through the burning of waste vegetable oil or WVO.

In: “CATS: Grand Canyon Railway a ‘Lean, Clean and Green’ machine,” I wrote about this very thing.

As a matter of fact, the National Park Service’s “Lean, Clean and Green Award” was bestowed upon GCR for its use of WVO in one of its steam locomotives.

320px-WilliamsDepot_WilliamsAZ[1]Specifically, I wrote: “According to information presented in the [Feb. 21, 2012 “Park Concessioner Grand Canyon Railway Recently Received NPS Director’s Environmental Achievement Award”] news release, the received GCR honor was in recognition of a program to convert a 90-year-old steam locomotive that once was powered by coal to run on a renewable fuel – waste vegetable oil (WVO). The first thing I’m thinking is: ‘Remarkable! Truly remarkable!’”

Is there a future in the industry for this fuel?

And diesel?

Diesel doings

Interestingly, in a Sept. 15, 2009 Iowa Interstate Railroad Company (IAIS) news item, the railroad announced that locomotive tests had gotten underway earlier that year in June to determine the efficacy of using biodiesel as a fuel type.1

Even predating IAIS’ Sept. 15, 2009 announcement, on Mar. 14, 2008 – one-and-a-half-years-and-one-day earlier – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had its own announcement.

In the EPA’s corresponding news release: “EPA Clears the Air: New Standards Drastically Cut Locomotive and Marine Diesel Pollution,” the federal agency noted: “New tough emissions standards will slash pollution from locomotive and marine diesel engines by up to 90 percent, helping Americans to breathe cleaner air as soon as this year,” and then went on to state: “When fully implemented, these new standards will reduce soot or particulate matter (PM) by 90 percent or 27,000 tons and reduce nitrogen oxides emissions (NOx) by 80 percent or nearly 800,000 tons. Nationwide this regulation will help prevent 1,400 premature deaths, and 120,000 lost workdays annually in 2030. The estimated annual health benefits are valued between $8.4 billion and $12 billion. When these older locomotive and marine engines reach the end of their useful life, and new engines enter into the nation’s diesel fleet, the benefits of today’s action will increase.”


  1. “Biodiesel locomotive test leads rail industry: Iowa Interstate Railroad and Renewable Energy Group partner to demonstrate B10 and B20 use in Iowa rail line locomotive,” Iowa Interstate Railroad, Sept. 15, 2009.

– Alan Kandel