Caterpillar jumps on electric train craze with massive 10-locomotive deal


The rail freight sector has crawled down the road to zero-emission locomotives, with orders pouring in for one electric train at a time. Today, the American firm Caterpillar has picked up the pace. Through its subsidiary Progress Rail, the legendary maker of off-road mobilized heavy equipment has just entered into a 10-locomotive deal with Union Pacific Railroad, on which the equally legendary railroad has become the future owner of the most large fleet of battery electric locomotives in the United States.

Suddenly the electric train is a big deal

Progress Rail is new to the Clean Technica radar, but it’s no small potato. The company was acquired by Caterpillar in 2006 and bills itself as the world’s largest provider of locomotive supplies and services, meaning its recent foray into electric train territory may impact rail operations at large scale.

Progress track first sailed through the Clean Technica radar last month, when the company secured a new electric train contract consisting of just two battery-electric locomotives for mining company Fortescue in Australia.

Now here he is turning the electric train dial, to supply 10 of his EMD Joule electric locomotives for Union Pacific. It is the largest railroad in the United States and a household name for anyone near a freight railroad in 23 western states.

Saving the planet is all well and good, but it seems freight rail companies are getting hooked on the benefits of electrification. The electric trains would replace thousands of diesel-electric trains that ply the rails in the United States and around the world. Progress alone represents more than 65,000 diesel-electric locomotives in service in 75 countries.

Assuming that all-electric locomotives cost less to manufacture, maintain and operate than diesel-electric locomotives, the sticky ticket would be the cost of adding electrification infrastructure to rail systems. However, a recent University of California, Berkeley study on freight railroad electrification suggests that U.S. railroads could reduce those costs by leveraging their existing hubs for charging stations.

Ultimately, saving the planet plays a part in rail electrification.

As Union Pacific Chairman, President and CEO Lance Fritz explained, part of the reasoning behind the big electric train buy is to satisfy increased demand for decarbonization among freight shippers, but that’s not the case. is not all. He also suggested a now familiar scenario in which the demand for decarbonization is so strong that legacy companies like Union Pacific are jostling for pole position to carve out a place for themselves in the sparkling green economy of the future. .

“We are committed to taking actions that reduce Union Pacific’s environmental footprint as we work toward our ultimate goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050,” Fritz said. “These investments will help further develop this important technology and deliver industry-wide benefits.”

Electric train against. Electric truck: who best supports decarbonization?

Net zero by 2050 seems rather unambitious, but Union Pacific’s rail operations require various carbon-intensive tasks, such as replacing millions of railroad ties each year, which will require a lot of sorting to be repaired. Replacing a fossil-powered train with an electric train to pull a long string of wagons is a good start, but it’s only the tip of the railroad’s carbon footprint.

If you have any thoughts on this, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, this issue of railway tie replacement raises an interesting distinction between railway stakeholders and the highway trucking industry. Railroad companies like Union Pacific are directly responsible for maintaining and upgrading their railroads, but the trucking industry indirectly supports the maintenance and construction of highways, through tolls and taxes.

This revolves around an interesting sidebar that took place on highway costs under the Trump administration. In an article dated February 27, 2018, our friends at Overdrive took note of a White House report supporting the imposition of tolls on highway taxes, which argued, among other things, that the trucking industry was not paying its fair share for highway maintenance.

Overdrive journalist James Jaillet quoted this passage from the report:

“Furthermore, evidence suggests that heavy goods vehicles in particular do not currently face taxes and charges aligned with the negative externalities they generate, including damage to pavements, congestion, accident risk and emissions.”

Ouch! This issue of externalities was a mixed bag during the Trump administration, but the emissions part resonates louder than ever now that President Joe Biden has pivoted federal policy toward climate action. In addition to tailpipe emissions, researchers are also beginning to catalog damage to the environment related to microscopic road and tire particles emitted by road vehicles.

Sparks fly when electric train meets self-driving truck

We raise this issue because railroads engaging in on-road trucking face a rather daunting dual decarbonization challenge. Union Pacific has launched a wide network of solutions, and the latest venture is in self-driving vehicles.

Yesterday, TuSimple announced that Union Pacific’s wholly owned subsidiary, Loup Logistics, would be the first to use a fully automated truck route, which connects the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas in Arizona, after six successful trials. totaling 550 miles.

“Starting this spring, TuSimple plans to transport Driver Out freight for Union Pacific, using revolutionary AV (autonomous vehicle) technology to deliver goods to their destination faster and more cost-effectively,” says TuSimple.

Part of the economy comes from labor. TuSimple’s autonomous system saves at least 10% fuel compared to a truck with driver, according to a 2019 study by the company with the University of California, San Diego, with a consequent reduction in emissions. Another environmental benefit is the potential to reduce tire wear by virtually eliminating excessive speeding, unnecessary braking and other friction-increasing operations.

If you guess TuSimple’s self-driving trucks aren’t electric, that’s a good guess. Apparently the company isn’t planning on going electrified any time soon, but a girl can dream.

Trainspotters, mark your calendar for 2024

For Union Pacific’s new EMD Joule electric locomotives, train spotting opportunities will begin when the new locomotives enter service in 2024, and spotters are advised to take up position near a rail yard to spot the action.

The EMD Joule is a shunting locomotive designed for use in marshalling yards, not for long-distance hauling. However, the difference in emissions will be significant. Turnouts are central to railway electrification because they can provide a lot of uptime over a period of time.

“The new EMD® Joule is a zero-emission switch that includes battery capacity from 1.9 megawatt-hours to 2.4 megawatt-hours, with additional options available,” says Progress Rail. “The Switch is rated up to 3,000 horsepower and has a run time of up to 24 hours, depending on load and usage.”

“The mixer’s battery recovers energy through dynamic braking. When dynamic braking is activated to control the speed of the train, the battery replenishes its energy reserves,” they add.

Anyway, it’s a start. For now, electric train watchers will have to travel to Pennsylvania to see a battery-electric locomotive in action on the open tracks.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Electric Shunting Locomotive Joule EMD courtesy of Progress Rail.


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