Goodbye, Electro-Motive (for now)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, February 23, 2015

And then there was one.

Is anyone else bothered, or at least made uncomfortable, that this great nation presently has but a single maker of high-horsepower diesel freight locomotives? With Electro-Motive Diesel (a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Caterpillar) sidelined by its inability to produce a product that meets the government’s Tier 4 standard for exhaust emissions, only General Electric is left in the game. And this at a time when the railroad business is going great guns and grabbing every new locomotive in sight.

Actually, I’m told that GE is still delivering Tier 3 locomotives and won’t switch to Tier 4 until this summer. This is permissible because GE is using credits earned for exceeding Tier 3 standards and will turn out at least one Tier 4 locomotive this year for each Tier 3 product.

Not that I have anything against General Electric. The company manufactures great locomotives, slow to load and leap to life, perhaps, but still machines you can depend upon. What bothers me is this: It took GE about 30 years to reach this level of dependability; that’s what happens when you try to put together a locomotive that will operate flawlessly under the tremendous stress that a railroad puts upon it.

And now Electro Motive faces its own learning curve. The glorious 30-year reign of its model 710 diesel engine (so named because it has that many cubic inches of displacement per cylinder) appears over. The company will substitute a four-stroke engine, with which it has had far less experience, and grapple with new emission-control technology that we don’t know will actually work. Heaven help us all if EMD’s learning curve lasts as long as GE’s.

When the smoke clears, Electro-Motive’s decision to bet its future on being able to make the 710 Tier 4-compliant will go down as one of the worst business misjudgments in railroad history. When David Lustig and I visited its factories for a feature story that appeared in the January 2011 issue of Trains Magazine, CEO John Hamilton and Director Engine Systems Martha (Marti) Lenz were all but certain they could pull it off. The reason for their optimism was that almost alone among diesel engine makers, EMD made a two-stroke rather than four-stroke product.

From our article four years ago: “ ‘Our engine runs cooler,’ Lenz says, ‘and the cooler the engine, the less nitrous oxide is produced.’ Add exhaust gas recirculation, and bingo, you’re in compliance on nitrogen oxide. Or so EMD hopes. ‘We’ve gotten to Tier 4 levels in a research environment,’ she says, ‘so our next step is to see if we can do it on a locomotive.’ ” At the LaGrange, Ill., engine plant, I watched as a “mule” or stationary engine hummed away, testing EMD’s Tier 4 solution.

At the time of that interview, Electro-Motive Diesel was in the process of being bought by Caterpillar—or rather, by Cat’s Progress Rail subsidiary. Hamilton quickly decided EMD was not big enough for both him and Progress Rail boss Billy Ainsworth and left.

And what happened to making the 710 engine Tier 4-compliant? We’d don’t know. Cat and Progress Rail are notoriously tightlipped. Either Marti Lenz was disastrously wrong five years ago or Caterpillar decided to junk it anyway and substitute a four-cycle product. In any event,  it has nothing to sell in the United States today. I understand it is rebuilding SD40s with 710 engines in Mexico for Canadian Pacific.

Progress Rail says its Tier 4 locomotive will be ready in the second half of 2016, and in fact it is telling railroads that units will go out for testing this June. A locomotive exec for one of the Class I roads tells me he’s confident EMD will meet its deadline. He’s also confident the new locomotive will have “lots of problems.” But that’s what I was saying some paragraphs ago.

Those Tier 4 GE locomotives will come at a 15 percent higher price, which works out to between $350,000 and $400,000 a pop for cleaner air. Railroads are also told to expect less fuel efficiency, although nobody yet knows how much less.

And one more thing: GE and EMD are relying mainly on exhaust gas recirculation to eliminate nitrous oxide, or NOx, and it’s unclear how well this will work over time. Navistar went this route on truck engines and met disaster. Matters would have been so much easier had the two manufacturers opted for after-exhaust chemical treatment involving urea. Probably EMD would still be churning out 710-engined locomotives. The reason it didn’t happen is because the railroads all told them they wanted nothing to do with aftertreatment. To quote one senior railroader: “So, we are getting what we demanded, for better or worse.”—Fred W. Frailey (edited 2/24/2015)

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