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Brand new battery-electric freight trains are beginning to hit the rails, and they could soon be joined by thousands of electrified diesel locomotives, too (photo: new battery-electric locomotive by Wabtec).

Clean Transport

Electrification Of Rail Freight Industry Takes One (Just One) Giant Step Forward

Electrification is an elusive goal for the rail freight industry, but Canada’s CN is giving it the old college try.

**Correction, Update to this article, with our apologies: “Our grant funding for this important project did not come from Pennsylvania taxpayers. The grant we provided was 100 percent from Pennsylvania’s Volkswagen settlement funding, to reduce air pollution, just as this funding is meant to do. Please learn more at”

“CN and Wabtec credit the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with providing support for the deal through its Marine and Rail Freight Movers Grant Program, so group hug, all you PA taxpayers. The new locomotive will go to the CN subsidiary Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad Company in western Pennsylvania”

Everybody knows that transportation by rail freight is fuel efficient. The missing link on the sustainability cake is electrification, which has been progressing at the pace of a snail with one too many gin and tonics under its belt. Nevertheless, a glimmer of light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, in the form of a new 100% electric locomotive soon to ply the rails for the Canadian railway company CN.

Fuel Good, Electrification Better

The rail freight industry has not gotten very far on its electrification journey, preferring to coast on its record of diesel fuel efficiency improvements in recent years, and its reduced emissions compared to diesel trucks. The American Association of Railroads estimates that subbing in railways for just 25% of truck trips of at least 750 miles would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US by about 13.1 million tons per year.

AAR seems to have its sights set on shifting up to 50% of those long-haul truck trips to rail, but that would probably involve building more railway capacity, which is going to be a tough row to hoe unless there are some spare rights-of-way hanging around.

On the other hand, AAR makes a good case for building more capacity, especially considering the cargo bottlenecks and labor shortages besetting the global economy on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A single freight train…can replace several hundred trucks, freeing up space on the highway for other motorists. Shifting freight from trucks to rail also reduces highway wear and tear and the pressure to build costly new highways,” AAR explains, adding that “highway congestion cost Americans $166 billion in wasted time (8.8 billion hours) and wasted fuel (3.3 billion gallons) in 2017.”

AAR also points out that improvements in diesel fuel efficiency have dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions from rail freight hauling in the US from the peak year of 2006.

Transportation Electrification: Where The Rubber Hits The Road

That thing about highway wear and tear raises a good point about transportation electrification within the freight hauling sector. Zero emission vehicles are just one piece of a carbon puzzle that also involves building and maintaining roads, as well as maintaining vehicles and their drivers.

Also, for all the excitement around electrification and zero emission tailpipes, almost nobody wants to say anything about the trail of microparticles of tire material and road surface left behind when electric vehicles rub their tires across pavement.

Those microparticles are actually a big deal for the tire industry, which has been trying to figure out ways to keep them from contributing to the global pollution problem.

Still, automakers are set to bring whole fleets of zero emission battery-electric trucks and fuel cell electric trucks to the highways within the next few years, microparticles or not. If railway stakeholders want their case for building new railroads to hold up, they’ll need to keep up with trucks on electrification.

Electrification, Coming Soon To A Freight Railway Near You, Eventually

To be clear, electrification has been part and parcel of railway history for generations, but primarily in the form of passenger trains. Electrification for long haul rail freight still has, well, a long way to go, but CN aims to to get things going.

Earlier this week, CN staked its claim to acquiring the first 100% battery-electric freight locomotive in North America, the so-named FLXdrive locomotive manufactured by the Pittsburgh firm Wabtec.

CN and Wabtec credit the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with providing support for the deal through its Marine and Rail Freight Movers Grant Program. The new locomotive will go to the CN subsidiary Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad Company in western Pennsylvania.

As one indicator of the challenges besetting electrification in the freight rail area, CN apparently does not actually plan for B&LE to send the new electric locomotive flying solo down the tracks. It will pair the new zero emission locomotive with Wabtec’s latest generation of fuel efficient locomotives.

CN anticipates reducing fuel consumption and emissions from this hybrid configuration by up to 30%, which is not as good as full electrification, but still pretty good compared to current practice. If all goes according to plan, CN hopes that the combo of fuel efficiency and electrification will provide itself and other railway companies with a meaningful step up the decarbonization ladder.

Electric Trainspotting In Western Pennsylvania

Our friends over at the Erie, Pennsylvania website add some details that could help trainspotters spot this latest milestone in electrification.

The B&LE railroad goes from Penn Hills in the suburb of Pittsburgh to the town of Conneaut, Ohio, a distance of about 139 miles. You should be able to spot the new electric train at some point in between.

According to, Wabtec has already tested a version of the new electric locomotive with a battery capacity of 2.4 megawatt-hours, but CN anticipates that the timespan will climb to 7 megawatt hours by the time it takes delivery, which is not expected to take place until sometime in 2023, so don’t rush out there to stake out the best trainspotting spot along the route unless you are prepared to camp out for a while.

Electrification & The End Of Coal

All this attention to electrification puts railway companies like CN in a tricky position. Railways can take credit for reducing emissions compared to hauling freight on highways, but their role in propping up the fossil energy supply chain casts a giant shadow over their decarbonization efforts.

CN, for example, currently hauls an average of 45 million tonnes of coal every year. The company also directly serve 13 coal mines along with 7 petro-coke facilities and 7 leading export terminals.

The company also has its fingers in the petrochemical pot, as described on its website:

“CN provides our petroleum and chemicals customers with unmatched competitive reach. As the only railway to serve three major petrochemical hubs in North America, we provide our customers the ability to use a single rail carrier from origin to destination…we work closely with our customers to share our best practices, help them cut costs, and improve efficiencies while connecting producers with their suppliers and markets”

Oh well, baby steps. It looks like the electrification of long haul freight trains won’t happen any time soon, but meanwhile railway companies foresee progress over the short term by electrifying switcher locomotives, cranes, and other equipment used at railyards and container ports.

Switcher locomotives work in railyards so they don’t range over long distances, but they do work long hours and all those diesel emissions can add up. The problem of railyard pollution has been drawing more attention in recent years alongside the growth of the environmental justice movement, providing railroad companies with added motivation to electrify.

In addition to battery-electric technology, at least one railway company is testing a zero emission fuel cell electric switcher locomotive, which makes sense considering that fuel cell electric technology is also being eyeballed for electrifying passenger rail travel along routes where building new overhead wires is impractical if not impossible.

Also in the mix is solar power, so keep an eye out for those box cars festooned with solar panels some day in the sparkling green future.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Battery-electric locomotive for CN courtesy of Wabtec Corporation.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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