Low-emission locomotives a boost to public health

By Kari Lydersen
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A new crop of "ultra-low emission" short-haul locomotives could have significant public health benefits, according to rail industry officials and federal health experts, who suggest that they could help decrease the risk of cancer and heart and respiratory disease for people living near rail yards.

Switcher engines that move train cars between tracks in rail yards make up a small percentage of the trains in service nationwide. But their emissions have a disproportionate health impact, since an engine idling in a rail yard near an urban area affects far more people than one chugging across the Plains.

Railroad companies typically retire their oldest, and dirtiest, locomotives to rail yards and rarely buy new ones, industry officials say. But government incentives and pressure on state and municipal governments to meet federal air-quality standards have created a market for clean, new switcher engines.

An independent, family-run Illinois company has emerged as the industry leader in this niche.

Last Tuesday, an engineer fired up a shiny red-white-and-blue GenSet N-ViroMotive amid rusted engine blocks and jumbled train parts in the Chicago suburb of Dixmoor. After an initial puff of brown smoke, its three stacks yielded no visible sign of emissions. There was also no smell, and there was moderate noise.

The train was a stark contrast to an old, yellow locomotive the engineer had brought to life minutes earlier, spewing thick, bluish diesel fumes.

The GenSet emits up to 90 percent less nitrogen oxide and particulate matter than does a traditional engine carrying freight and passengers for short distances or operating in switch yards. It has modern pollution controls and uses three smaller engines instead of one large one, allowing the engineer to use only as much power as needed. Traditional locomotives run at full throttle even when only idling to keep warm or wait for track clearance.

Since the GenSet's emissions reduction stems largely from cutting unnecessary power usage, its efficiency diminishes over cross-country hauls, where an engine needs to run at full horsepower for long distances.

"If you're looking at a specific location, they're very useful in terms of reducing emissions," said Mike Rush, associate general counsel of the Association of American Railroads. "If you're looking at an industrywide perspective, they're helpful but only for a small percentage of locomotives."

The N-ViroMotive GenSet is made by National Railway Equipment Co. In the past few years, it has delivered about 300 GenSets to customers including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Fifteen of the locomotives were purchased by rail company CSX, with help from federal programs to improve air quality. While the emissions reduction from these engines is still small compared with CSX's fleet of nearly 4,000 locomotives nationwide, the impact on several individual rail yards is significant. CSX rail yards in the Bronx and North Jersey now use only GenSet locomotives, having retired four dirty, old locomotives from each facility.

The key to curbing emissions so dramatically on long-haul locomotives lies in a process known as selective catalytic reduction, says Ken Hofacker, an executive with Progress Rail Services, which also makes GenSets. SCR devices cleanse exhaust, but they are typically very large -- too large for engines that must slip through tunnels and across narrow bridges.

Rail companies have invested millions in various, incremental ways to reduce emissions on the long-haul locomotives that make up the bulk of their fleet. But without strong government incentive programs akin to "Cash for Clunkers," Hofacker doesn't think railroad companies will rush to buy new locomotives.

"People are fixing up old beaters instead of buying new ones," he said. "There will have to be government assistance to get these green technologies going. It's like a hybrid car -- it's new, it's a little different, people might be worried about repairs if something goes wrong."

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