Caterpillar Hops On Electric Train Craze With Massive 10-Locomotive Deal

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The rail freight business has been crawling along the path of zero emission locomotives, with orders trickling in for one electric train at a time. Now the US firm Caterpillar has picked up the pace. Through its Progress Rail subsidiary, the legendary maker of heavy off-road mobilized equipment has just locked in a 10-locomotive deal with Union Pacific Railroad, upon which the equally legendary rail company has become the future owner of the biggest battery-electric locomotive fleet in the US.

Suddenly, The Electric Train Is A Big Deal

Progress Rail is new to the CleanTechnica radar, but it is no small potatoes. The company was acquired by Caterpillar in 2006 and bills itself as the largest supplier of locomotive supplies and services in the world, meaning that its recent foray into electric train territory can impact rail operations far and wide.

Progress Rail first sailed across the CleanTechnica radar last month, when the company struck a new electric train deal consisting of just two battery-electric locomotives for the mining company Fortescue in Australia.

Now here it comes turning the electric train dial up, to supply 10 of its EMD Joule electric locomotives for Union Pacific. That’s the biggest rail company in the US and a familiar name to anyone within trainspotting distance of a freight railway in 23 western states.

Saving the planet is all well and good, but it seems that freight rail companies are becoming hooked on the bottom-line benefits of electrification. Electric trains would replace thousand of diesel-electric trains that ply the rails in the US and globally. Progress alone accounts for more than 65,000 diesel-electric locomotives operating in 75 countries.

Assuming that 100% electric locomotives cost less to manufacture, maintain, and operate than diesel-electric, the sticky wicket would be the cost of adding electrification infrastructure to rail systems. However, a recent study by the University of California at Berkeley on freight railway electrification suggests that US railway companies could reduce those costs by leverage their existing hubs for charging stations.

Bottom line aside, saving the planet does play a role in rail electrification.

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As explained by Union Pacific Chairman, President, and CEO Lance Fritz, part of the reasoning behind the big electric train buy is to satisfy increased demand for decarbonization among freight shippers, but that’s not all. He also suggested a now-familiar scenario in which the demand for decarbonization is so strong that legacy companies like Union Pacific are scrambling to grab the pole position to nail down a premier position in the sparkling green economy of the future.

“We’re committed to actions that reduce Union Pacific’s environmental footprint as we work toward our ultimate goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050,” Fritz said. “These investments will contribute to further developing this important technology and providing industry-wide benefits.”

Electric Train Vs. Electric Truck: Who Wears Decarbonization Best?

Net zero by 2050 sounds rather unambitious, but Union Pacific’s railway operations do require various carbon intensive tasks like replacing millions of railroad ties each year, which will take a lot of sorting out to fix. Replacing a fossil-powered train with an electric train to pull a long string of rail cars is a good start, but it’s just the tip of the railway carbon footprint.

If you have any thoughts on the matter, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, that thing about replacing railway ties brings up an interesting distinction between railroad stakeholders and the road-going trucking industry. Rail companies like Union Pacific are directly responsible for maintaining and upgrading their railroads, but the trucking industry supports highway maintenance and construction indirectly, through tolls and taxes.

That circles around to an interesting sidebar that took place over highway costs during the Trump administration. In an article dated February 27, 2018, our friends over at Overdrive took note of a White House report in support of imposing tolls on highway taxes, which argued in particular that the trucking industry does not pay its fair share for highway upkeep.

Overdrive reporter James Jaillet cited this passage in particular from the report:

“Furthermore, evidence suggests that heavy trucks in particular do not currently faces taxes and charges that are aligned with the negative externalities they generate, which include pavement damage, traffic congestion, accident risk and emissions.”

Ouch! That thing about externalities was a mixed bag during the Trump administration, but the emissions part of it resonates louder than ever now that President Joe Biden has pivoted federal policy towards climate action. Aside from tailpipe emissions, researchers are also beginning to catalogue the environmental harm related to microscopic particles of road and tire released by road-going vehicles.

Sparks Fly When Electric Train Meets Autonomous Truck

We bring this up because railroad companies that engage with on-road trucking face a rather daunting decarbonization double-dare. Union Pacific has been be casting a wide net for solutions, and the latest venture involves autonomous vehicles.

Yesterday the company TuSimple announced that Union Pacific’s wholly owned subsidiary Loup Logistics will be the first to make use of a fully automated truck route, which runs between the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas in Arizona, following six successful test runs totaling 550 miles.

“Starting this spring, TuSimple plans to carry Driver Out freight for Union Pacific, utilizing groundbreaking AV (autonomous vehicle) technology to deliver goods to their destination faster and more cost-effectively,” TuSimple explains.

Part the cost-saving comes from labor. TuSimple’s autonomous system saves at least 10% on fuel over a driver-operated truck, according to a 2019 study undertaken by the company with the University of California at San Diego, with a consequent cut in emissions. Another environmental benefit is the potential for reducing tire wear and tear by virtually eliminating speeding, unnecessary braking, and other friction-increasing operations.

If you’re guessing TuSimple’s autonomous trucks are not electric, that’s a good guess. Apparently the company does not plan to electrify any time soon, but a girl can dream.

Trainspotters, Mark Your Calendar For 2024

As for Union Pacific’s new EMD Joule electric locomotives, the trainspotting opportunities will start when the new locomotives hit the rails in 2024, and spotters are advised take up a position near a freight yard to spot the action.

The EMD Joule is a switcher locomotive designed for use in rail yards, not long distance hauling. Still, the difference in emissions will be significant. Switchers are a focus of railway electrification because they can put in a lot of up-time during a given period of time.

“The new EMD® Joule is a zero emissions switcher which includes battery capacity from 1.9 megawatt hours up to 2.4 megawatt hours, with additional options available,” Progress Rail explains. “The switcher has nominal power up to 3,000 horsepower, and a run time of up to 24 hours, dependent upon charging and utilization.”

“The switcher’s battery recovers energy through dynamic braking. When dynamic braking is activated to control train speed, the battery will restore its energy reserves,” they add.

Anyways, it’s a start. For now, electric trainspotters will have to go to Pennsylvania to see a battery-electric locomotive in action out on the open rails.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Joule EMD electric switcher locomotive courtesy of Progress Rail.


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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.

Tina Casey has 3292 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey