The death of diesel

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, December 2, 2017

Did you read about the public debut of Metrolink’s new Tier 4 diesel locomotive the other day? Made by Caterpillar’s Progress Rail to meet the latest environmental rules, it pulled a special train to be greeted by the public and LA area politicians in Newall, Cal. But the train never got to Newall, its locomotive crapping out repeatedly and finally giving up for good within sight of the station.

The failure of Progress Rail’s latest and greatest is a metaphor for the state of locomotive manufacturing today. Diesels have gotten so expensive and so complicated that nobody wants to buy them. The locomotive market is DOA. Given the challenges facing railroads today, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The time may be ripe to ditch the diesel.

I sense a sea-change. In part, it’s what I just brought up: You pay too much and get too little from today’s Tier 4 diesel. A couple of years ago it seemed that liquified natural gas might supplant diesel. But the huge upfront costs and the instability of gas prices scared railroads away. And LNG is not the way the politics of energy is moving.

The wind has changed direction. The world is moving away from carbon fuels. Britain, France, Norway and India all want to get gasoline and diesel vehicles off their roads. Britain will ban sales of new gas or diesel cars in 2040 and ban them from the roads by 2050. All new cars sold in Norway starting in 2025 must have zero emissions. The mayors of Athens, Mexico City, Madrid and Paris want to ban diesel cars and vans by 2025. I doubt that the United States will be totally immune to such pressures.

But for railroads, this is good news. What these political decisions made overseas have done is intensify the development of more-powerful battery-run cars and trucks. Here at home, Tesla’s Elon Musk promises to put a tractor truck on the road, able to run 500 miles fully loaded without a recharge, by 2019—and then recharge it in 30 minutes to run another 400 miles. If Tesla can accomplish this for a truck (there are plenty of skeptics), the same technology can be applied on a far larger scale to locomotives. Meanwhile, the cost of producing renewal energy keeps going down. Therein lies the opportunity.

The western railroads have studied electrification repeatedly. Always, the answer is no because of the prohibitive cost of conversion—the catenary, the substations, the locomotives and so on. Battery-powered locomotives don’t require catenary or substations. This simplifies the challenge facing proponents of electric locomotives.

Already the fuel costs favor battery locomotives. Union Pacific, for example, in 2016 paid $1.48 per gallon of diesel fuel. Each gallon holds the energy equivalent of 40 kilowatt hours of electricity. Unsubsidized renewable energy will soon be produced in the Southwest for 3 cents a kilowatt hour. At 6 cents per kilowatt hour (the national average for utility-grade solar panels), it would cost $2.40 to produce the energy that a gallon of diesel holds. But only about 30 percent of the energy in diesel is ultimately seen in locomotion, versus 86 percent for a lithium battery feeding an electric motor. In other words, you can conceivably fuel your locomotive with electricity from solar panels at roughly half the present cost of diesel. And every year, the cost of producing solar power keeps going down. With so many fewer moving parts in a battery-driven locomotive, maintenance costs are bound to be less, perhaps by 30 to 40 percent.

Ultimately, everything will hinge on the price of the battery versus the cost of a diesel engine and all the fuel-delivery and exhaust-handling pieces that go with it. We know the cost of a modern diesel locomotive—something like $4 million a shot. What we don’t know is the cost of putting that much power in a battery locomotive. I suspect that whatever that number is will trend down over time.

Believe me, the opportunity to replace diesel propulsion is out there. Of the North American fleet of 39,000 diesel locomotive, scarcely 10 percent are equipped with Tier 3 or Tier 4 emissions technology. The initial battleground between diesel and battery will be in terminals, just as it was when diesels stuck their noses into the steam locomotive tent.

My own thoughts on this are unambiguous. I want railroading to survive and prosper into the Twenty-Second Century. This will not happen if they cannot adapt to new technology and new ways of doing business. The entire cost structure of railroads must be lowered significantly to compete with self-driving trucks now appearing on the horizon, and it cannot be accomplished solely by reducing the size of crew to one person or even none.

So I welcome alternatives to the diesel. If not battery or LNG, then try rubber bands. Just don’t stand there looking at headlights.

Meanwhile, sitting somewhere on Norfolk Southern property is transgender locomotive 999, which began life in 1969 as a GP38 diesel. In 2007, NS equipped and began testing 999 with more than 1,000 dry-cell batteries cells in place of its prime mover. But the technology to make 999 a success with battery power wasn’t there then. “We continue to watch developments, but our in-house efforts on electric locomotives are on hold,” project manager Gibson Barbee told me. My advice to Norfolk Southern is to hold on to locomotive 999. Someday it could become as historically significant as the Tom Thumb or Best Friend of Charleston.

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