by guest blogger Stan Thompson
At first glance, Russell Gold’s March 5, 2013, Wall Street Journal story, “Berkshire’s BNSF Railway to Test Switch to Natural Gas,” looked like such a big splash that the hydrail boat might get swamped. But a closer look suggests that hydrail—the emerging hydrogen fuel cell hybrid technology for railroad propulsion—is more likely to ski along on Buffet’s BNSF wake than be swamped by it.
BNSF introduced the first full-scale hydrail locomotive on June 29, 2009, when its Topeka-built HH 1205 went into demonstration service at the Port of Los Angeles. Development of HH 1205 was funded by the US Department of Defense via a project championed by now KS Governor (then KS Senator) Sam D. Brownback (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1dCBtx6AGc&feature=related).
Earlier this year, China rolled out its first hydrail locomotive, a project of Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, Sichuan (TV news video segment, preceded by ad: .
Last year the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education rolled out the UK’s first hydrail locomotive, Hydrogen Pioneer—a park-scale, narrow-gauge concept unit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3i4zIBeKYgY). The Birmingham Centre celebrated Pioneer’s debut by hosting the 7th International Hydrail Conference there. U. Birmingham will graduate its first hydrail doctorate, Germany’s Andreas Hoffrichter, this spring.
Early hydrail technology lends itself to the smaller rail applications. The very first hydrail locomotive was a mining “loco” designed to replace battery-electric underground units that took several hours to charge-up before returning to work. Recently AMPLATS, a major South African mining company, announced plans to test a fleet of five hydrail locos and—if successful—to begin to replace their underground fleet of 800. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSZF7UDN-QE).
BNSF’s early solution to the diesel oil problem should create an attractive “build toward the middle from both ends” situation. A carbon-free, non-extraction based hydrail universe remains the end state and the Buffet-BNSF gas/diesel innovation should get us there much sooner.
Make no mistake: a BNSF move to natural gas traction power will be a world shaking transformation, ranking “with the industry’s historic transition away from steam engines in the last century,” as Gold quotes BNSF’s Chief Executive, Matt Rose, as saying.
But in Europe, and perhaps Asia, hydrail still has the main line to itself. Natural gas’s carbon footprint and it’s problematic sourcing still point to hydrail as the next general railroad traction technology.
In the USA, natural-gas-powered streetcars for new line construction make a lot more sense than spending $10 million-per-mile to construct overhead electrification. But silent, more efficient, zero-carbon hydrolleys (H2 streetcars) make even more sense.
Though hydrail is hardly a household word, the technology has existed for nearly a decade. Natural gas diesel—while very likely to succeed—is still on the drawing boards.
While it’s there, here’s hoping that the Caterpillar and General Electric locomotive developers mentioned in Gold’s WSJ story have the wisdom to anticipate and design-in a post-carbon future when the gas powering modified diesel locomotives is renewably-sourced hydrogen rather than exhaustible, climate-problematic, natural gas.
For information on hydrail, visit Appalachian State University’s web site, http://www.hydrail.org.