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This new type of electric train is on track to electrify the US freight rail network and push diesel trucks off the highways, too (image courtesy of Parallel Systems).

Clean Transport

It’s An Electric Train, But Don’t Call It An Electric Train

A new type of autonomous electric train is on track to electrify the US freight rail network and push diesel trucks off the highways, too

Hauling freight by rail is an energy-saver compared to trucking it on highways, but there is always room for improvement. A startup called Parallel Systems has come up with a new approach to electric trains that could help push thousands of diesel trucks straight out of the freight business and possibly help resolve part of the truck driver shortage, too.

Don’t Call It An Electric Train

Parallel Systems crossed the CleanTechnica radar last year, when it busted out of stealth mode with the help of a $4.5 million grant from ARPA-E, the US Department of Energy office tasked with funding high risk, high reward ventures.

Parallel certainly fits the bill. Instead of depending on battery powered locomotives to electrify whole freight trains, the company has come up with a system of individual, autonomous electric “rail vehicles” that vaguely resemble long, flat versions of the new zero emission USPS delivery trucks from the front, if you squint.

“The zero emission, electric, autonomous rail vehicle model gives Parallel Systems the ability to break trains down into their component parts, enabling each railcar to split off individually or form new platoons with others,” we noted.

With the benefit of zero emission logistics, Parallel Systems foresees at least three use cases that help reduce the need for cumbersome transfers between trucks and trains at key locations, including seaports and warehouses. The company also envisions the creation of “microterminals” that take up far less land than traditional rail yards, enabling them to be can located closer to shippers.

Another benefit is the ability to uncouple and re-couple individual rail cars en route. In addition to logistics advantages, the system could enable an electric train to split itself on either side of railroad crossings, enabling emergency vehicles and other traffic to pass through as needed.

The $4.5 Million Electric Train Of The Future

Parallel contacted CleanTechnica by email with an update this week, and it looks like they put those ARPA-E dollars to good use.

The company has one new “rail vehicle” under its belt, which ran through its paces at the company’s test track in California last November. They list emergency stopping, thermal capabilities, braking performance, GPS, communications, and towing among the features tested and confirmed to be consistent with expectations.

The next steps involve building three more rail vehicles and bringing them for testing to the Colorado facility of MxV Rail, the research and consultancy branch of the Association of American Railroads.

MxV has already consulted in the project, with a focus on derailment risk prevention. If all goes according to plan, the end result will be an autonomous system that railways can operate from their existing in-house control systems.

As described by Parallel, existing rail controls are focused on preventing derailments related to excess speed and train-on-train collisions. The company plans to add a perception feature for detecting and responding to other hazards.

“A big part of achieving commercialization is having a train control system that works with what the railroads use today. We are developing a system that will allow railroad companies to operate our autonomous vehicles from their in-house platforms,” explains Matt Soule, the company’s co-founder and CEO.

Where Are All The Drivers?

Parallel estimates that its new electric train reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 90% per mile compared to conventional trucks, allowing for a 10% portion of grid-supplied energy needed to recharge the batteries. To the extent that electric rail vehicles can replace diesel trucks, that’s a big win for the shipping industry overall.

Labor is another challenge facing the shipping industry, especially in the field of long haul trucking. The urgent need to decarbonize is matched by an urgent need to find the next generation of truck drivers. Improving pay, benefits and working conditions would help. So would autonomous trucks, but sending fleets of driverless semis and delivery vehicles out to the open roads is a non-starter, at least in the near future.

As closed systems, railways have a better shot at achieving near-term automation without running afoul of other vehicles in mixed traffic. Automation might also help the US rail industry resolve simmering workforce issues that have reached the boiling point in recent months, though that remains to be seen.

Let’s Thank Texas For This Electric Train

Of course, no mention of electric trains would be complete without a mention of Texas. Despite its historic role as an epicenter of the US oil and gas industry, Texas has become a renewable energy leader, and a hothouse for growing the next generation of zero emission technology.

That includes the electric train of the future. The University of Texas at Austin has been helping Parallel to identify optimal routes for commercializing its rail vehicle. “This research will be used to generate actionable data, such as how much cargo can be moved in a given day, insights into track congestion, and optimal locations and timing for charging of the vehicles,” the company explains.

The input from UT-Austin should help shorten the timeline between pilot-testing the new electric rail vehicle and bringing it to market. The US rail industry might also deploy some of its real estate to generate renewable energy, helping with the logistics of battery recharging. Regenerative braking and onboard solar panels are two other angles that dovetail with electric trains. Wireless in-road battery charging also comes to mind. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

In the meantime, the opportunities for electric trainspotting are few and far between. However, a glimmer of light is appearing. Back in 2021 CleanTechnica took note of the new FLXdrive electric train from the US company Wabtec, which made its first run along a 139-mile route between Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was actually a hybrid consisting of a battery-electric locomotive paired with two high-efficiency diesel locomotives, but Wabtec anticipated a substantial 30% cut in carbon emissions from the arrangement.

Things have been moving along at a good clip since then. Last year Union Pacific ordered up 10 of the new Wabtec battery-electric trains for use in its rail yards and BHP Group ordered two.

The Caterpillar subsidiary Progress Rail is another company to watch in the train electrification field.

Fuel cell trains are also beginning to inch onto the rails, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Trainwreck Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Find me on LinkedIn: @TinaMCasey or Mastodon: @Casey or Post:  @tinamcasey

Image: Autonomous electric train courtesy of Parallel Systems (via Dropbox).

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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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