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Railway giant considers switch to natural gas

Posting in Technology

The railroad industry could soon see a major transition in how trains are powered, the biggest since steam-engines gave way to diesel-powered engines.

The Wall Street Journal reports that BNSF, the largest railway in the United States, is considering a switch to natural gas. The company plans to begin testing locomotives powered by natural gas this fall. If the tests go well more locomotive could be retrofit to run on natural gas a year later.

With an abundance of natural gas (though production is plateauing) in the United States, it's a cheaper option compared to diesel. But while natural gas prices might be cheap, making the switch on its 6,900 locomotives wouldn't be, WSJ reports:

A potential shift to gas faces many hurdles, however, including getting approval from federal regulators on fuel-tank safety. Introducing gas also will require different fuel depots, special tanker cars to carry the fuel and training for depot workers.

That won't come cheaply. Just retrofitting a diesel locomotive and adding the tanker car could add 50% to a locomotive's roughly $2 million price tag, though that increase would diminish as economies of scale take hold.

If the switch does happen, it will be a big blow to diesel considering BNSF estimates that it's the second-largest consumer of diesel in the U.S. behind the U.S. Navy.

BNSF is working on a locomotive that runs on diesel and natural gas. Meanwhile, General Electric and Caterpillar are also developing locomotives that run on liquefied natural gas.

So when could we see a significant number of natural-gas powered trains? One expert tells WSJ that it will be at least five years before natural-gas powered trains begin to take over rails.

BNSF Railway to Test Switch to Natural Gas [Wall Street Journal]

Photo: Flickr/LimeBye

— By on March 6, 2013, 12:27 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure