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electric train autonomous freight car Parallel
A new electric train concept is hitting the rails, featuring autonomous independent freight cars (image courtesy of Parallel Systems).

Clean Transport

Electric Or Not, Trucks Are A Menace (Trains, Not So Much)

A new electric train concept is hitting the rails, featuring autonomous independent freight cars.

Metal is metal, and it’s all the same if the driver of a 10,000-pound semi is rolling down a highway, blockading a bridge, or joining up with hundreds of like-minded souls to take over the capital city of a NATO ally for three weeks on the eve of war in Europe. In that context, an electric truck is just like any other truck, only with a battery instead of a tank of diesel fuel. Trains, in contrast, have to stay on their own tracks regardless of what the engineer thinks about the price of bread in Peoria. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a new electric train concept that’s slotted for testing by the US Department of Energy.

The Electric Train Of The Future: Why Bother?

Rail freight already has a strong emissions advantage over diesel trucks. Our friends over at the Association of American Railroads often cite a figure of more than more than 480 miles per gallon per one ton of freight for the fuel consumption of rail freight in the US, virtually all of which is conducted by diesel-electric locomotives.

So, it’s fair to ask what’s the point of electrifying freight trains. After all, there are bigger planet-killing fish to fry.

Part of the answer is that railroad stakeholders could like to maintain their edge over truck transport in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, which they will lose when battery-electric trucks become the norm — or, for that matter, fuel cell trucks.

AAR crunched the numbers and makes the case for replacing long haul diesel trucks with more rail freight capacity, for trips of 750 miles or more. According to their analysis, replacing 25% of long haul truck traffic with railways would cut yearly greenhouse gas emissions by more than 13 million tons.

Here Comes The Electric Train Of The Future, Eventually

Electrification is already coming to rail freight, though slowly. The problem is that electrifying a locomotive doesn’t resolve the limitations of existing rail infrastructure.

Rail freight capacity is limited in part by the size and configuration of rail yards, where freight cars are assembled. Modern freight trains can stretch for multiple miles, and they require large staging yards. Expanding or adding to the nation’s roster of rail yard infrastructure is going to be a tough row to hoe, and rail stakeholders would still have to rely heavily on highway transit to get the freight from a centralized rail yard to its final destination.

Last month, CleanTechnica caught wind of an out-of-stealth startup that has a plan for solving the whole problem holistically. Called Parallel Systems, the firm has developed a space age rail freight system that distributes the electric locomotive power to individual, driverless freight cars. The cars can operate autonomously in platoons or run individually, enabling them to peel off from the main line and travel wherever a track will go, with minimal infrastructure.

Rather than focusing on replacing long haul rail freight, Parallel Systems is picking the low hanging electrification fruit of short distance transport.

“Rail is widely recognized as an energy-efficient means of surface freight movement,” they explain. “However, today’s trains are miles long and require large terminal operations that impact the economic feasibility of short-haul freight service, which represent one-third of the nation’s freight movements in ton-miles,” Parallel says.

Will It Work?

We’re about to find out. CleanTechnica wasn’t the only one to cotton on to the idea of electric trains for short haul routes. Parallel Systems also caught the eye of private investors and the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E office, which is responsible for funding high risk, high reward energy technologies of tomorrow, today.

Earlier this week, Parallel Systems announced that ARPA-E tapped it for almost $4.5 million in funding to get an advanced testing program under way for its autonomous, battery-operated freight cars.

The two-year, five-month program will get under way later this year at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc., which is a subsidiary of AAR. Hot tip for trainspotters: TCCI is located in Pueblo, Colorado, so head on over there for a first look at the new electric freight cars in action.

Several other A-list partners will also contribute to the project, including the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and RailTEC, aka the the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois.

“The overarching aim of the advanced testing program is to demonstrate three key innovations unique to Parallel’s system: overall vehicle stability, contact-based platooning and energy efficiency,” explains Parallel Systems.

That thing about stability is more complicated than it sounds. Railways have curves and rail cars need to withstand high winds as they travel along. As explained by Parallel, the data-gathering part of the project will include measuring stability in twist and roll, pitch and bounce, and yaw and sway under different conditions, and that will be compared to the performance of conventional freight cars.

The contact-based platooning angle involves fine tuning the bumper design and control systems to improve energy efficiency.

ALTRIOS To The Rescue

The key to the whole endeavor is something called ALTRIOS for Advanced Locomotive Technology and Rail Infrastructure Optimization, which is a new open-source railway modeling software that launched just last fall, which explains why you probably haven’t heard about it before.

“Parallel’s technology will be one of the firsts to be evaluated by NREL’s Advanced Locomotive Technology and Rail Infrastructure Optimization System (ALTRIOS) software,” Parallel explains. “ALTRIOS is an ARPA-E funded tool designed to simulate and optimize energy conversion and storage dynamics, train dynamics, meet-pass planning (detailed train timetabling), and freight-demand-driven train scheduling.

“ALTRIOS will help determine the optimal amount of energy Parallel needs to run and maintain its system, enabling the company to meet charging demands,” Parallel adds. “The software will also evaluate the merits of distributing the energy storage and investigate the improved network capacity and resilience achieved with self-propelled cars.”

Shoutout to BNSF Railway for partnering in the development of ALTRIOS, which will offer “the first fully integrated package to optimize deployment of locomotive technologies, railway energy supply infrastructure, and train operating practices for cost-effective deep decarbonization.”

Follow The Money

If all goes according to plan, the Parallel concept will enable railroads to grab a bigger piece of the $700 billion US trucking industry, which is getting bigger at the rate of 4% growth in ton-miles per year, according to Parallel’s figures.

Speaking of money, by now everybody knows that US donors have played a significant role in funneling money to a known right-wing organization behind the “trucker” protests in Canada. Everybody also knows that only a small fraction of actual full time truck drivers have taken part in the disruption of civic life in Ottawa and the blockage of border crossings involving not one but two NATO allies, the US and Canada.

With rumors of copycat actions launching in the US next month, it’s about time for truck manufacturers, electric or not, to denounce the use of their products in civic warfare. That includes pickups as well as semis.

As for the electric train of the future, it’s true that an autonomous electric rail freight system could be brought to a halt somehow, but at least those freight cars won’t be spewing diesel fumes while they’re stuck out there on the tracks.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Electric freight cars to replace trucks, courtesy of Parallel Systems.

 
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Written By

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 Google+.

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