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Electric freight trains are coming as heavy industry tries to cut emissions

Last September a group of politicians and business leaders gathered in Pittsburgh to officially unveil the world's latest heavy-duty, battery powered freight train engine.

Built by the Pennsylvania-based company Wabtec, the electric engine is able to reduce fuel consumption across a train's operations by 11 percent, shaving off tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

It's the latest attempt to pull freight and heavy industry into the world of zero emission transportation and a sign that electric freight trains are coming to railways around the country.

While public transit has been electrified since the late nineteenth century, long-haul freight for industrial equipment and chemicals, grains, and fuels, has relied on a mix of fossil fuels for power -- with coal and diesel (two of the most polluting fuels) used as the defaults.

Now, that's beginning to change. Wabtec is working on building bigger electric engines to reduce even more fuel consumption and is also exploring whether green Hydrogen fuel (a clean burning substitute for natural gas, diesel, or coal) could replace fossil fuels in the trains.

A November research paper from the science journal Nature Energy talked about the benefits of moving to more electrified transportation in industrial rail.

"Nearly all US locomotives are propelled by diesel-electric drives, which emit 35 million tonnes of CO2 and produce air pollution causing about 1,000 premature deaths annually, accounting for approximately US$6.5 billion in annual health damage costs. Improved battery technology plus access to cheap renewable electricity open the possibility of battery-electric rail," the authors wrote. "At near-future battery prices, battery-electric trains can achieve parity with diesel-electric trains if environmental costs are included or if rail companies can access wholesale electricity prices and achieve 40% use of fast-charging infrastructure. Accounting for reduced criteria air pollutants and CO2 emissions, switching to battery-electric propulsion would save the US freight rail sector US$94 billion over 20 years."

Hitting $94 billion in savings over a twenty year period is a pretty good reason to switch to electric trains.

Wabtec has been racking up orders from big mining companies already. Earlier this year BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto both inked deals for Wabtec's new trains.

Meanwhile a group of former SpaceX engineers are working on a new type of locomotion system that could replace traditional freight rail entirely.

Parallel Systems is their new company and it's building autonomous, electric rail cars that can be platooned to replicate a traditional train.

The business is focusing on what's called intermodal transport, which can ship finished goods across the country to different places and isn't carrying bulk or commodity products like timber or coal.

Unlike a traditional rail car, Parallel Systems' places to autonomous vehicles -- sort of similar to the robotic pallets used in many warehouses -- at equal distances and then drops a shipping container on top.

These shipping containers can join up to form platoons of vehicles or separate to multiple destinations.

The goal isn't necessarily to replace long haul freight, but rather do away with the need for long-haul trucking to carry goods and services across the U.S.

“For the unit economics of freight trains to get competitive with trucks, you need really long trains, and you’re amortizing the cost of that locomotive and crew over that one really long train,” Matt Soule told TechCrunch in an interview. “When that becomes a problem is when you’re figuring out where to park that big train, and the answer is, not many places.”

Making Parallel Systems' platoon dreams come true in cities will still take some work, because these intermodal transportation options had typically been handled by trucking.

It could be another step in the automation of more parts of shipping services to make on-demand delivery even more efficient.

Last mile electric delivery robots are reducing traffic (and pollution from idling vehicles) in neighborhoods and providing rail services to central warehousing could be another way to cut down the number of polluting vehicles on roadways.

“The fundamental reason we’re doing this is to accelerate the decarbonization of freight, but the problem that we see is rail’s scale of operations is limited to a market it can serve,” Soule told TechCrunch. “So we’re trying to embrace this energy efficiency, but then break down its operational and economic barriers at the same time. And by the way, we’re making our powertrain electric, which further accelerates the decarbonization benefits because our grid itself is not clean. So when you look at a diesel truck, compared to what we’re building, and looking at the average, real-world CO2 content of the U.S. grid, we’re going to be 90% less CO2 per mile to move a unit of freight with our technology versus a diesel truck today.”


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