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Future Rail Environmental Sustainability

Future Environmental Sustainability Overview

New advancements in rail-related technologies have the potential to greatly enhance air quality along rail corridors and at rail yards, boost quality of life for residents and businesses situated along rail corridors (through reductions in noise and emissions), and increase safety for motorists and non-motorists at rail/road at-grade crossings.

Rail Facility Technologies

Rail freight is efficient for the amount of fuel needed per ton moved; however, rail yard operations require multiple locomotives for car movement, as well as trucks to distribute and consolidate goods to and from rail facilities. Therefore, air quality and emissions are a concern at these facilities.

CSX’s Queensgate Yard is located within a non-attainment air quality conformity area and the railroad is taking steps to improve emissions as part of its operations. Railroads are looking at drayage vehicles that use alternative fuels such as propane, CNG, or hybrid electric or fully electric vehicles for the movement of goods within the yard by truck. Railroads continue to evaluate the evolution of available technology for potential use.

Lower & Zero Emission Locomotives

All railroads are slowly replacing older locomotives with newer, more efficient ones. Railroads are exploring up to 100% renewable diesel and biodiesel in existing locomotives, which could quickly and dramatically reduce carbon emissions by 20 to 25%. Future lower and zero-emission technologies include hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell, and electric locomotives.

Hybrid Locomotives

Current freight rail locomotives are nearly all hybrid electric/diesel, with on-board diesel generators producing electromotive power. Railroads are testing battery locomotive prototypes for main-line train engines, which recharge each time a train brakes and that could reduce emissions by nearly 30%.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Locomotives

Railroads, suppliers, and academic institutions are researching zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell line-haul and switching locomotives. These could potentially replace diesel locomotives.

Electric Locomotives

Fully electric freight line-haul and switching locomotives are in development today. They use battery-electric locomotives powered by onboard batteries, which enable them to meet intensive rail operations demands. Current battery electric locomotives use lithium-ion batteries, integrated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to keep batteries at room temperature, as well as energy management systems to monitor battery health. In testing, these electric locomotives can recharge during dynamic breaking or at wayside charging stations. This technology has shown reductions in a freight train’s total fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 10 to 15%.

Much like heavy-duty trucks, electric locomotive charging will require extremely high-power levels. This will require high-voltage power lines with three-phase power. Redundancy and back-up storage may also be needed for continuity of operations during power outages.  

Current concerns with electric locomotives center on reliability issues associated with pilot projects conducted by Class I railroads. When these issues are addressed, and railroads are confident in the technology, it is expected to be adopted industry wide. But adoption, analysts say, will be slow and occur over time as older locomotives are replaced.

Technical, black and white drawing of the right side of a train engine.

ZELTECH Z30C Electric, 3,000 HP Battery-Powered Locomotive
Source: Tom Mack. Z-Eltech. (2022).

E-Locomotive Pilot

One example that CET may look to as they consider the use of electric locomotives is the deployment conducted by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway company (BNSF) and Wabtec, a Pittsburgh-based rail technology company. This partnership tested the potential of Wabtec’s FLX battery-electric locomotives on service between Barstow and Stockton, Calif. The battery electric locomotive sat between two traditional diesel locomotives during testing. The three-month pilot program was funded by a grant awarded to BNSF from the Zero-and Near Zero-Emission Freight Facilities project. The grant came from the California Air Resource Board and awarded to pilot emissions-reducing technologies around railyards. Pilot results showed a reduction in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 11% for a revenue service train. During its trips, the FLX locomotive ran on 18,000 lithium-ion battery cells, charged at a BNSF rail yard in Stockton California, and recharged throughout the trip through dynamic braking.

Building off this successful test pilot project, Wabtec is now working to develop a second-generation locomotive, which will have a battery capacity of more than six megawatt hours. The goal is to reduce locomotive fuel consumption and carbon emissions by up to 30%, and to encourage the commercialization and deployment of battery-electric locomotives throughout the U.S. rail network — within the next few years.


Technology Providing Rail Efficiency

Besides the fuels used by train locomotives and facility drayage vehicles, new technologies are being developed to improve efficiency of rail vehicles and infrastructure for use throughout the network.

Modern Tier 4 Locomotives & Fuel Management Systems

Today’s locomotives have hundreds of sensors that generate thousands of performance readings per minute to maximize efficiency. Advanced fuel management systems assess track grade, train weight, wind speed and more, giving the locomotive engineer real-time power and speed recommendations that improve fuel efficiency up to 14%. Technologies like these help railroads move one ton of freight almost 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel.

Anti-idling Technologies & Zero-emission Cranes

Anti-idling technologies like stop-start systems, which shut down a locomotive when it is not in use and restart it when needed, can reduce idle time by 50%. At intermodal facilities, zero-emission cranes that transfer goods between barges and trucks to trains can recharge their batteries each time they lower a load. These cranes have the added benefits of reducing ambient noise and pollution.

Positive Train Control

In addition to safety, Positive Train Control (PTC) systems can improve efficiencies by maximizing capacity, optimizing customer service and reducing fuel use and emissions.

Remote Control Locomotives

Within rail yards, Remote Control Locomotives (RCL) allow railroad operators to control and operate locomotives with hand-held transmitters, which reduce incidents and injuries resulting from miscommunication. RCL remove the need for workers to stand in hazardous locations at the front of pushed rail cars. Federal Rail Administration (FRA) data show employee injury rates are about 20% lower for RCL operations than for conventional switching operations.

Infrastructure Inspections Using Drones and Sonar

Railroad inspectors and maintenance employees regularly use drones to inspect bridges and infrastructure, particularly during severe weather events, to assess bridges following large storms or flooding.

Railroad Operations Technologies

Several technologies exist that make operations more efficient assist railroads in streamlining cost and providing more efficient freight movement.

Dispatching Software

Dispatch-planning software helps optimize train movement across the network by analyzing train schedules, speed restrictions and crew schedules to develop the best operating plan. This software allows dispatchers to respond in near real-time to changing conditions, such as train delays, weather events and unplanned maintenance work.

Customer Application Program Interfaces

Railroads provide their customers with highly detailed data to support shipment tracking. This information helps rail customers better manage their operations and inventory. Many railroads have developed specialized tools, such as Customer Application Program Interfaces (API) integrated directly into customer platforms, and shipment tracking tools that provide greater transparency for everything from the location of their products on the rail network to rail car availability and ordering.

Mobile Apps

Railroads have deployed mobile apps for trucking partners to expedite intermodal movements and minimizing the time spent in rail yards by recognizing and approving drivers and providing receipts and digital paperwork as part of an Automated Gate Systems. The system reduces idling and emissions while expediting customer delivery.

Minimizing HAZMAT Spills Through Rail Maintenance Technologies

Currently, rail related Hazardous Material (HAZMAT) incidences account for only four percent of all HAZMAT transportation-related incidences in the OKI region between 2001 and 2010, and only one percent for the period of 2011 to 2020. The number of rail HAZMAT incidences in the region decreased by almost 40 percent between these two decades which has had a positive environmental impact. 

There are three major areas of risk associated with the movement of HAZMATs by rail: derailments, tank car rupture, and regulatory oversight.

Derailments are not necessarily directly related to the movement of HAZMATs but are a significant risk for spills that result from tank car ruptures that result. Ruptures can also occur when struck by vehicles, heavy equipment, or other rail cars. Regulatory oversight is the responsibility of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Current rail technology enables railroads to inspect their track and equipment with greater efficiency and reliability. With OKI regional rail freight volumes forecasted to increase, to continue the downward trend of rail HAZMAT gas or liquid leaks, expanded use of maintenance-related rail technologies, such as those listed below have the potential to improve safety and operations through improved railroad maintenance. (Source: The Association of American Railroads (AAR). Modern Freight Railroads Run on Technology. (October 2022).)


Automated Track Inspection (ATI) Technologies

Using lasers and cameras, ATI allows railroads to see how the track performs under the load of a train, with data is sent to a centralized location it is verified and maintenance is scheduled as necessary.

Track Inspection Vehicles

Track inspection vehicles (also known as track geometry cars) that use lasers and ultrasound as they travel along the tracks to measure track alignment, elevation in curves, track wear, and internal defects that could lead to accidents.

Wayside Detectors

Infrared and laser sensors alongside the track to assess the condition of train wheels and bearings to preempt overheating. The data provided shows patterns to predict when there may be overheating by as much as three months in advance.

Machine Visioning

Machine visioning technology uses cameras to inspect trains as they move to reduce inspection times through algorithms that analyze the images to identify anomalies.

Predictive Maintenance

Machine learning and AI help railroads predict and prevent maintenance issues based on patterns and trends found through sensors across the network, allowing railroads to develop a five-year planning horizon for proactive repairs and maintenance.

Rail Crossing Technology

For the past few decades, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) has supported research into new technologies to consider ways of improving grade crossing safety. Two research examples follow which not only address crossing safety, but also the issue of minimizing train horn noise, a high-priority, quality-of-life concern to the OKI communities in which public grade crossing are located.

Intelligent Transportation Systems

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) have been in use throughout the OKI region for the past few decades. ITS can take many different forms from mobile apps to interstate on-ramp meters. FRA research at the Volpe Center found that installation of dynamic message signs on public roads at rail grade crossings provided cost-effective technology for improving the communication of an oncoming train to motorists, without the need for audible cue. These message signs incorporate the use of dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) and Differential Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems, as well as video detection and monitoring. Given the fact that all motorists must pass a visual test — and not a hearing test — to receive a driver’s license, use of a dynamic message sign could remove the need for an audible cue.

(Source: Dr. Thomas Raslear. Feasibility Studies of Integrating Intelligent Transportation Systems and Positive Train Control Technologies at Highway-Rail Intersections. United States Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration. Research Results Document Series.

Train Horn Optimization

Technological advances in freight rail can also come in the form of improving upon an existing operational practice. FRA states that under the Train Horn Rule (49 CFR Part 222), train horns must be sounded at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public rail grade crossings. This means that if a train is traveling faster than 60 mph, the horn will be sounded as far as a quarter mile from the grade crossing having an impact on greater numbers of residents and businesses located along the rail corridor. The standardized pattern for train horns is two long, one short and one long blast. There are no rules for what defines a “long” and “short” horn signal. The pattern must be repeated until the lead train engine is within the rail grade crossing. The Train Horn Rule also requires that train horns must be between 96 and 110 decibels.

Due to the impact of train horns to quality of life in the OKI region, the research performed by FRA to examine the potential for focusing train horns to optimize crossing safety while minimizing noise is of high interest. FRA studied acoustic source technologies which generate directional sound including “acoustic hailing devices,” which is a recent technological advancement being used by the military for naval communication and crowd control. These devices can focus high levels of sound within a constricted beam. Findings show that motorists’ perception could be improved, and the noise impact area reduced by 50% or more while still meeting FRA’s required Train Horn Rule provisions.

(Source: United States Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration. Feasibility of a Train Horn with Optimized Directivity: Environmental and Occupational Noise Benefit of an Ideal Train Horn. Research Results Document Series. Report Number: DOT/FRA/ORD-22/32. August 2022.)



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