The world’s first battery-electric freight train was unveiled at an event in Pittsburgh on Friday, amid a fresh attempt by some US lawmakers to slash carbon emissions from rail transport in order to address the climate crisis.
Wabtec, the Pittsburgh-based rail freight company, showed off its locomotive at Carnegie Mellon University as part of a new venture between the two organizations to develop zero emissions technology to help move the 1.7bn tons of goods that are shipped on American railroads each year.
Perched upon a strip of rail at Carnegie Mellon’s technology campus on the banks of the Monongahela River, the cherry red, 75ft-long train provided a striking background to politicians, rail executives and academics who urged a swifter industry transition away from fossil fuels. Dignitaries were allowed to clamber up a vertiginous ladder on to the train to inspect its confines, which included a small driver’s cabin in front of 500 lithium-ion battery modules, arrayed in stacks in the heart of the vehicle.
The new train, known as the FLXdrive battery-electric locomotive, underwent successful trials in California earlier this year where it was found to have cut fuel consumption by 11%, which meant reducing the amount of diesel used by 6,200 gallons. Wabtec said that the next iteration of the locomotive, to be rolled out within two years, will be able to cut the consumption of diesel, the fossil fuel traditionally used in freight rail, by nearly a third.
The company also said emissions will be entirely eliminated through the development of accompanying hydrogen fuel cells. If the technology is used worldwide, Wabtec estimates planet-heating emissions could be cut by 300m tons a year, with nearly half of those saved emissions occurring in the US.
“A bolder, cleaner, more efficient transportation system is in our grasp,” said Raphael Santana, chief executive of Wabtec. “This is just the beginning.”
The rail industry is seeking to position itself as an enthusiastic backer of Joe Biden’s climate agenda despite its history of funding groups that reject the reality of climate change and fiercely protecting the stream of coal transported on US rail.
The use of rail to move freight long distances has been an integral part of the American economy since the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were joined up in 1869, allowing goods to flow freely to the US west for the first time. The rail freight industry is now worth around $80bn and spans 140,000 miles of track across the US.
However, the environmental benefits of rail have been undermined by the heavy reliance upon diesel to fuel freight trains, as well as a widespread preference among businesses to move goods via trucks rather than trains. This is a problem globally beyond the US – the International Energy Agency has said that freight rail is “often neglected” in climate debates and currently…
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