Railway safety was at the top of everyone’s minds last February, after a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, sparked a health emergency. A new rail safety bill is winding its way through Congress, but that is a dim prospect as the media spotlight fades. Instead, local communities may have to wait until the era of autonomous electric vehicles begins to take shape and new safety-first technology plies the railways.
Call Them Electric Vehicles, Not Trains
Derailments and toxic releases are the the first things that come to mind in terms of community rail safety, but even a non-derailed freight train can cause life-threatening problems. As train length increases, crossings are clogged for longer periods. Precious time rolls by as first responders wait for a train to pass while an emergency unfolds on the other side.
According to the industry organization Association of American Railroads, about half of the Class 1 freight trains on the rails in 2021 hit the 1-mile mark in length. Overall, about 10% of trains were longer than 1.8 miles and about 1% hit 2.6 miles or longer.
The organization cites statistics showing that longer trains have not been linked to an increase in accidents in recent years. However, that is cold comfort to communities that are impacted, either by derailments or other hazards including stallouts and stopped trains at crossings.
The derailment and toxic release in East Palestine motivated legislators to introduce rail safety bills in the Senate and House. The Senate bill moved out of committee last spring despite resistence from Republican members, but move out it did.
A companion bill in the House of Representatives is still floundering in subcommittee limbo, as may be expected.
Either way, train length may (or may not) play a role if a rail safety bill ever makes it to President Biden’s desk. In the meantime, new rail electrification technology could put the whole issue to bed.
Among the startups introducing new electric railway technology is the firm Parallel Systems, which insists that its electrified freight cars are electric rail vehicles, not just electrified freight cars.
If all goes according to plan, Parallel Systems’ electric vehicles can operate solo or as units in a platoon, capable of attaching and detaching themselves as the need arises.
Electric Vehicles On Rails
Putting a street vehicle on rails is not a new thing, but Parallel has taken it to the next level by applying new EV technology — including autonomous operation — to rail systems.
The company crossed the CleanTechnica radar last year, when it unveiled a freight car loaded up with all the benefits of electric vehicle technology in addition to the advantage of ditching the diesel fuel used by the nation’s fleet of diesel-electric locomotives.
Parallel Systems aims for its electric vehicles to compete with diesel trucks for a share of the nation’s freight hauling business.
In March, the company contacted CleanTechnica by email with an update on its efforts to put the new electric vehicles into commercial operation. The initial testing phase included the all-important elements of emergency stopping and braking, along with GPS, communications, and other features related to autonomous and remote control.
One Step Closer To The Micro-Mini Freight Train Of The Future
Parallel Systems provided CleanTechnica with an embargoed update last week, in which they describe the next phase of testing. In the works are new communications tools and software that are compatible with existing railway dispatch and control systems.
The next phase also involves taking the new electric vehicles out of Parallel Systems’ test track in California, and sending them onto commercial freight lines to operate alongside conventional freight trains. The new vehicles have also been updated to accommodate standard shipping containers, with an eye on international markets and cost-effectiveness.
For this phase of real-world testing, the new rail cars will be equipped with autonomous features and remote controls. Parallel System notes, though, that the initial tests will be supervised throughout.
The End Of The Two-Mile Train
To the extent that shorter freight trains provide for improved safety in trackside communities, individually powered electric vehicles appear to have the advantage over long strings of deadweight freight cars pulled by a handful of locomotives.
Parallel anticipates that a platoon configuration of its freight cars will top out at 50 units to achieve energy efficiency goals while taking advantage of capacity on the railway network. There appears to be plenty of room for that. According to Parallel co-founder and CEO Matt Souder, less than 3% of the 143,000 miles of track in the US are currently occupied by a train at any time.
As for train length, doing the math based on 60 feet per standard shipping container, a 50-car platoon falls well below the one-mile mark. That’s still a pretty long train when you’re waiting at a crossing to get to the ER, but the platoon configuration provides a unique advantage over conventional freight trains. The platoon can divide itself up into shorter units at crossings and other critical locations as needed.
“The platooning is fully automated, the railcars don’t need to hook or unhook, they simply move close to each other and then initiate contact through bumpers to form platoons,” Parallel explains. “Once contact is made, each vehicle maintains a set force with the one in front by regulating tractive effort.”
“The small air gap and pushing action through railcar bumpers reduces overall aerodynamic drag of the platoon, improving energy efficiency,” they add.
Group Hug For US Taxpayers
Parallel is not the only one that believes in autonomous, remote controlled electric vehicles beat conventional freight rail cars. US taxpayers have also been enlisted in the effort to bring 21st century technology to the nation’s railways.
In 2022 US Department of Energy provided Parallel an assist with the testing phase, with $4,426,493 in funding through its ARPA-E high risk, high reward office.
Part of the aim is to promote energy efficiency in the nation’s transportation system overall. “Rail is widely recognized as an energy-efficient means of surface freight movement,” ARPA-E explains.
ARPA-E notes that the existing rail system in the US is organized around long distance transportation. That provides diesel trucks with an edge on short hauls, described as less than 500 miles. According to ARPA-E, short hauls are uneconomical for rail transportation. That explains why short hauls currently account for less than 2% of intermodal rail freight made up of standard shipping containers and truck trailers.
That brings up another goal, which is to reduce emissions from diesel trucks. If and when individually operable electric vehicles hit the rails, the short-haul advantage for diesel trucks would shrink considerably.
“Trucking freight accounts for 7% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, consumes 45B gallons of diesel annually, and grows in volume (ton-miles) by 4% each year,” ARPA-E admonishes.
All else being equal, replacing conventional locomotives with Parallel’s electric vehicles would cut US diesel imports by 33 billion gallons per year and make a serious dent of 4.5% into US greenhouse gas emissions overall.
Electric Vehicles, Security, & Equity
Of course, the overall impact on US fossil fuel consumption and extraction would depend on whether or not the US continues to play whack-a-mole on energy policy. Setting that aside, though, the potential for improving trackside community safety is already apparent. ARPA-E also anticipates that the new electric vehicles will have a significant impact on the security and resiliency of rail systems.
“These independent rail cars would simplify terminal operations, enabling significantly more competitive services at congested ports, and unlock the construction of smaller inland terminals leading to more resilient freight infrastructure,” ARPA-E explains.
The decentralization element is of a piece with the Biden administration’s focus on providing local communities with more opportunities to participate in a rising tide of economic activity rather than waiting to be trickled down upon.
“This has the potential to distribute equity to communities long forgotten in a mega-terminal-based transportation model,” ARPA-E observes.
That remains to be seen, but the ARPA-E grant term concludes in May of 2025. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be seeing soon.
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Image: New electric freight rail cars look like rail cars, act like electric vehicles (courtesy of Parallel Systems).
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