Another Convert To Natural-Gas Fueling: Railroad Locomotives?

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Two BNSF locomotives hauling coal trains meet near Wichita Falls, Texas

Two BNSF locomotives hauling coal trains meet near Wichita Falls, Texas

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The U.S. is increasingly awash in natural gas, so it's natural to consider it as a potential vehicle fuel.

From passenger cars to long-haul trucks, both compressed natural gas (CNG) and refrigerated liquid natural gas (LNG) are being eyed as a replacement for diesel fuel and gasoline.

Now, natural gas may make the leap into another kind of wheeled vehicle: railroad locomotives.

Freight railroad BNSF announced this week it would convert a locomotive to run on LNG, to test the concept in real-world use.

Matt Rose, the railroad's CEO, told the Wall Street Journal that the test "could be a transformational event" for the company and the industry.

Among the challenges will be building new tanker cars to carry the fuel, new fuel depots, and training of railroad workers--as well as signoff from regulators at the historically conservative Federal Railroad Administration.

Nonetheless, BNSF has an aggressive timetable: It hopes to have a pilot train running this fall and, if it proves successful, to begin retrofitting existing locomotives a year later.

A conventional diesel-electric locomotive costs roughly $2 million; early conversions might add another $1 million to that price, though the cost would fall substantially in volume.

But the investment would be more than made up in cost savings on fuel, since the price of U.S. natural gas is expected to stay low for many years into the future with increased production.

A gallon of diesel fuel runs about $4 today, while an amount of natural gas with the same energy content costs less than 50 cents, according to the Wall Street Journal.

And natural-gas fueling offers two additional benefits: Trains would have to stop less frequently to refuel, and their emissions of particulates and other pollutants would be cut drastically.

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas

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Ironically, BNSF hauls freight and natural resources that include both grain and oil from North Dakota to other parts of the country.

Using domestically-sourced natural gas to haul domestically-produced oil would likely be a first in the rail-freight business.

But it could also happen in long-haul trucking, which is viewed by many analysts as a more likely target for natural-gas fueling than the widely dispersed passenger-car market.

Only one carmaker offers a passenger vehicle that runs on natural gas--the 2013 Honda Civic Natural Gas model--though Ford, Chevy and GMC, and Ram all offer pickup trucks that can run on natural gas.


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Comments (8)
  1. Drilling for oil is bad enough but fracking is even worse. Natural gas is a temporary solution at best.

  2. On a temporary basis natural gas in an improvment over diesel fuel. The positive side is that natural gas burns with way fewer emission and a lower CO2 footprint than diesel fuel. On the negative side issues like fracking, tar sand and shale oil come to mind. I like electric propulsion. One pollution control system at the power plant is easier to monitor than thousands of pollution control devices on ICE engines in cars or in this contex rail road locamotives.

  3. "A gallon of diesel fuel runs about $4 today, while an amount of natural gas with the same energy content costs less than 50 cents..." Natural gas is about $2/GGE (gasoline gallon equivalent). I don't think a gallon diesel has a quarter of the energy content of gasoline, so that figure may need some adjustment.

  4. Actually the number are close to being accurate. The wholesale price of Natural gas in, well, Virginia is about $5 per MCF or $5 per million BTU in rounded numbers. Diesel fuel has about 129,500 BTU per gallon so you would need 7.7 gallons of diesel to equal the energy content of 1 MCF natural gas. For this application "Off Road" diesel would be used which would cost about $27.00 per million BTU.

  5. Does Natural Gas get taxed the same way as Gasoline and Diesel?

    We were just talking about "Gas tax" few days ago. Does the same "road tax" apply to Natural Gas?

  6. No it does not!. This application is "off Road" so NO road user taxes would be collected regardless of the fuel. Alternative fuel vehicles ( Natural gas, electric and LP) are exempt from paying taxes on the fuel but some states will slap a fee on to the cost of the "Tags" to makle up for the lost revenue.

  7. What would be the next step? Hydrogen fuel cell?

  8. Hydrogen will never work competitively.

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