Wabtec’s 100% Electric Locomotive Trickle Suddenly Becomes International Flood

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Whelp, that was fast. The locomotive manufacturer Wabtec lit up the Intertubes last November when it debuted the new FLXdrive 100% electric locomotive in Pennsylvania, but that was just the beginning.  The company has nailed down two clients in Australia for its carbon-free choo-choo while also locking in a spot on the new Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking, which aims to green up railway systems throughout Europe.

Everybody Hearts Electric Locomotives

Weaning freight locomotives off their diesel fuel habit is a tough row to hoe, considering the massive amount of energy that needs to be replaced. Fortunately, locomotive manufacturers already have a head start on electrification, in countries like the US where diesel-electric locomotives dominate.

Diesel-electric locomotives are sometimes referred to simply as “diesel,” but the forward motion is provided by electric traction motors deployed at the wheels. The electricity to run the motors is produced by a generator powered by a diesel engine.

Diesel-electric technology came into vogue in the US as a cost-cutting replacement for steam engines. General Motors was one of the key players driving the trend in the 1930s. That’s not a surprise, if you recall GM’s gas-battery electric hybrid Chevy Volt. The Volt appears to have taken a page out of GM’s locomotive history. It was designed as an electric drive vehicle, but its electric motor could run off a gas tank if the battery was drained.

Whatever Happened To Steam Engines?

The US railway industry was quick to adopt diesel-electric technology, partly on account of the labor savings. Saving the planet by cutting carbon emissions didn’t factor in, back in those days.

Here, let’s have our friends over at the National Parks Service explain:

“… a number of diesel electric locomotives could be coupled together, with the controls for each plugged into a single locomotive cab so that a single engineer and fireman could control eight or ten locomotives coupled together on the head of a train. When railroads double-headed or triple-headed steam locomotives, each locomotive required its own engineer and fireman. Thus the diesel-electric locomotive represented a labor-saving, cost-cutting machine.”

“Furthermore, the diesel-electric did not need the large quantities of water that steam locomotives required, and thus did not require the maintenance of expensive water tanks, pipelines, and water cranes at intermittent points along its lines, which meant another saving in cost,” they add.

For those of you keeping score at home, an issue of the Saturday Evening Post dated July 28, 1934 offers up many more reasons why diesel-electric technology replaced steam engines.

Steam engines still have their fans, and arguments have been made that emissions from modern steam locomotives are not worse than diesel-electric. However, the introduction of 100% electric locomotives throws a monkey wrench into the idea of reviving steam.

More Electric Locomotives For The US

That brings us around to Wabtec. The Pittsburgh-based company chugged across the CleanTechnica radar in November of last year, when it launched the 100% FLXdrive electric locomotive onto the rails.

The Canadian railway company CN acquired the new locomotive, billed as the first 100% battery-electric freight locomotive in North America, for its Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad Company subsidiary in western Pennsylvania.

The plan is for the FLXdrive to ply a 139-mile route from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to Conneaut, Ohio. Electrification fans may be disappointed to know that the full train will not be 100% electric, since diesel engines will also be hooked up. Still, Wabtec estimates a fuel savings of 30% from the hybrid configuration.

Australia Dips Toe In Rail Electrification Waters

Come to think of it, the hybrid strategy could open the door for the return of the steam engine. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, Wabtec has been busy selling electric locomotives. On January 10, it inked a deal with the leading mining company Rio Tinto for 4 FLXdrive battery-electric locomotives, which will be heading for rail operations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Rio Tinto has committed to halving its Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 2030, and electrifying its vast rail network is part of the plan.

The company’s current setup in Pilbara consists of 3 diesel-electric locomotives pulling 240 cars with a capacity of approximately 28,000 tons of iron ore. The new FLXdrive locomotives will sport batteries with 7 megawatt-hours of capacity. In a hybrid configuration with conventional locomotives, Wabtec expects Rio Tinto to cut its fuel costs and emissions into the double digits per train.

Trainspotters, put 2023 on your calendar because that is when Wabtec expects to deliver the new zero emission locomotives. Apparently the plan is to ease them into operation in rail yards before sending them off to the mainline.

Electrification fever, must be catching, because on January 16, Wabtec nailed an order for BHP Western Australia Iron Ore, for the delivery of two 7 MW FLXdrive locomotives in 2023.

Brandon Craig, BHP Asset President Western Australia Iron Ore, hinted that the two engines are just for starters. “WA Iron Ore is significant within BHP’s global operations,” he said, adding that “trialing battery-electric locomotives in collaboration with Wabtec has great potential to support our operational emissions reductions targets and goals.”

The FLXdrive has its work cut out for it. BHP trains currently consist of 4 diesel-electric locomotives pulling 270 cars or so, with a capacity of 38,000 tons of iron ore.

Railway Electrification, One Way Or Another

Rounding off a busy stretch for the railway electrification movement is Wabtec’s new status as a founding member of the Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking organization, which builds on the earlier Shift2Rail initiative.

“ERJU is a partnership between Europe’s major railway players that aims to modernize and green the European railway system,” Wabtec explains, with the aim of fostering the “radical transformation of the rail system.”

ERJU is part of a broader €10 billion EU investment plan for rapid decarbonization. As the railway area of that initiative, ERJU has a €1.2 billion ($1.5 billion USD) pot to aim at six areas, all focusing on autonomous technology as well as improvements in network management. Freight development is also a running theme, indicating that the EU is making another attempt to undo seams and obstacles in the area of rail freight.

Wabtec Transit President Lilian Leroux emphasizes that Wabtec already has an impressive footprint of 9,000 employees in Europe. “We file patents and develop high-tech products every day here,” she notes.

Too bad the UK up and quit the EU. That $1.5 billion purse sure would have come in handy as the UK takes on the railway electrification challenge.

In addition to 100% battery-electric locomotives, Wabtec’s contributions to ERJU could include hydrogen and fuel cell technology, as hinted at by a hookup with GM last year. Hydrogen locomotion is an area eyeballed by UK rail stakeholders including Scotland, which is still pressing for a return to the EU.

Good luck with that. Meanwhile, trends to watch over here in the US also include hydrogen fuel cell locomotives, as well as a movement to put solar panels on rail cars.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: FLXdrive 100% battery-electric locomotive courtesy of Wabtec.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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