The last century brought a shift in rail propulsion from the (typically) coal-powered steam engine to a combination of the diesel-electric locomotive and the electrified locomotive running under electrified overhead lines. While, no doubt, an advance over the earlier technology, the two incumbent technologies are not without their shortcomings.
In the current era, rapid technological developments and increased concerns about climate change have also spurred interest away from the internal combustion engine and the use of fossil fuels in various applications. These same technologies hold promise in a rail context, a mode of transportation that relies on a smaller number of more centralized operators.
With the tremendous investment of time, cost, and other resources that can go into a pilot experiment of a fuel technology and, often, related regulatory processes, it makes sense to determine the key candidates for such pilots. A major goal of this work is to help industry and government narrow down the key technologies, in terms of cost, viability, and environmental impacts, and simultaneously identify the challenges that may be encountered by a given technology that otherwise appears to hold significant promise. This study focuses on a U.S. context, and on the period between 2022 and 2038. Passenger and freight rail routes and systems were examined, each with different characteristics, via simulations of a single rail trip, A general environmental analysis was also performed on freight switcher locomotive activity.
The fuels examined included diesel, natural gas, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, hydrogen, and, in a passenger rail and switcher context, diesel and hydrogen powertrains paired with batteries to take in regenerative braking energy. The study finds cost reductions with both natural gas and (natural gas-derived) Fischer-Tropsch diesel, but with limited environmental benefits. Hydrogen via fuel cell has significant promise to reduce GHG and criteria pollutant emissions. That technology’s costs, both fuel and equipment, are highly uncertain; however, the study finds that, with lower bound projected costs, it could be competitive with diesel-electric costs; in the case of passenger rail, hybridization with batteries is also compelling. Hybridized hydrogen also was found to demonstrate a clear environmental benefit in switcher locomotive applications.