Electric trains are coming, in the form of new zero emission self-propelled railcars and locomotive replacements from the US startup Intramotev (image courtesy of Intramoteve).

Autonomous Electric Trains Really Are Coming For Your Diesel

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Electric locomotives are beginning to push fossil fuels out of the rail freight hauling business, but a second pathway is beginning to emerge. The US startup Intramotev of Missouri is one of a handful of companies pushing the envelope on electric trains. It is doing away with the locomotives altogether and electrifying the entire freight train, one railcar at a time.

Electric Trains & Captive Routes

Almost all locomotives in the US run on electric drive, so they are already partway to decarbonization. The problem is that under the current state of locomotive technology, on-board diesel generators provide the electricity. Renewable natural gas is beginning to emerge as a more sustainable alternative, but that’s still in the testing phase.

Meanwhile, full electrification alternatives are already on the market, consisting of battery packs to replace diesel generators. Private rail lines that link mining, processing, and shipping operations have been amenable to early adoption, with the added benefit that regenerative braking systems can provide the energy to be stored in the on-board batteries.

These “captive routes” generally have an electrification advantage over open railways, where mile-long (or longer) freight trains, tight schedules, and the need for a new charging infrastructure can be obstacles. The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has made the case that a diesel-to-battery makeover for all diesel locomotives in the US could be accomplished economically within a relatively short period of time, but as of this writing the locomotive makers been treading cautiously. The US firm Wabtec, for example, has introduced a new all-electric locomotive to operate in tandem with a diesel locomotive. These hybrid electric trains are already running on an open route between western Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Captive Routes & Low-Hanging Fruits

Meanwhile, Intramotiv has also spotted the low-hanging fruit in mining operations. Last year the company sent its ReVolt electric railcars to the firm Iron Senergy, a startup that launched in 2020 with the specific aim of extending the life of the Cumberland Coal Mine in western Pennsylvania. The mine had been slated to close as part of an overall shrinkage in the US coal industry. Iron Senergy estimates that Cumberland has another 30 years of life in it, so maybe they know something we don’t.

The Cumberland mine is not a one-off for clean tech. Fossil energy stakeholders have been using solar power at remote sites for decades. In recent years they have been increasing their deployment of renewables and other electrified work vehicles to tidy up around the edges of their carbon footprints. Cumberland is part and parcel of that trend.

The idea of forming up individual ReVolt railcars into long electric trains to travel the open railways without any locomotives to shepherd them along is off in the future somewhere. The ReVolt is a battery-pack retrofit for existing railcars, designed to hook up with conventional trains to save on diesel fuel.

Intramotev has also developed another electric railcar called the TugVolt, which is designed to uncouple and run independently, depending on the task at hand, as a replacement for conventional locomotives.

“The railcars can perform independently in freight yards and other stops for “first mile” loading duties, link into trains for traveling over long distances, and decouple to reach their ‘last mile’ destination,” CleanTechnica observed.

For the Cumberland trial, Intramotev was tasked with sending three ReVolt railcars to help haul coal on a 17-mile route from the mine to Iron Senergy’s Alicia Harbor Facility on the Monongahela River in Western Pennsylvania. The three cars are part of a longer train pulled by conventional locomotives, in effect forming a hybrid electric train.

“This will be the world’s first deployment of self-propelled battery-electric railcars in a traditional freight train, using regenerative braking and battery technology to reduce diesel consumption from locomotives, resulting in lower costs for rail operators and reducing emissions impact from rail operations,” Intramotev explained last year.

Intramotev shared the latest news with CleanTechnica by email earlier this week, stating that it has “successfully deployed the world’s first self-propelled battery-electric railcar in a traditional freight train,” having racked up more than 1,000 miles on the Cumberland route since delivery last year.

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One Step Closer To Electric Trains

CleanTechnica is reaching out to Intramotev for more details, such as how many conventional railcars and locomotives are used in each ReVolt-equipped hybrid electric train, and the difference in diesel consumption compared to conventional trains.

Meanwhile, Intramotev has also been working on a project to bring its TugVolt purpose-built locomotive replacement to Michigan. Last year, the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification provided the company with a $200,000 grant aimed at bringing electric trains to a mine operator in the state.

Michigan is not particularly known as a leading state for mining, but it does have an extensive mining industry. State regulators list metallics, native copper, sand dunes, and coal within their direct jurisdiction. The US Geological Survey also notes that Michigan is a “major producer of cement, construction sand and gravel, iron ore, peat, and potash.”

“It produces common clay, crushed and dimension stone, gypsum, industrial sand and gravel, lime, gemstones, and salt,” USGS adds.

To the extent that economic planners are interested in conserving jobs in the mining industry, converting diesel trains to electric trains fits in with the Michigan’s broader electrification goals.

Intramotev’s email mentioned that the TugVolt will be deployed at a “calcium mine” in Northern Michigan, perhaps referring to a limestone operation. Michigan does host the largest limestone quarry in the world, so that would be an interesting possibility. CleanTechnica is also asking Intramotev for more details about that calcium mine, and we’ll provide an update when available.

Where Are All The Electric Trains?

As recently noted in Railway Age, the TugVolt is a good fit for mining, steelmaking, and other heavy industries that already have short-haul or in-plant railway infrastructure at the ready. It is tempting to envision long-haul fully electric trains consisting of multiple TugVolts hooked up with a long line of ReVolts sometime in the future, but for now there are plenty of opportunities to electrify close-in transportation networks.

WabTec also foresees that fuel cell electric locomotives will also come into play at some point for long-haul electric trains. That, too, may be far off in the future. For now, CleanTechnica has spotted a plan to introduce a number of two-car fuel cell electric trainsets to a commuter route in California, from the Swiss firm Stadler.

Ballard is another fuel cell-curious locomotive maker. The Canadian firm is currently working on a fuel cell retrofit to electrify rail freight yard operations in California, with an assist from the California State Transportation Authority.

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Image: Electric trains are coming, in the form of new zero emission self-propelled railcars and locomotive replacements from the US startup Intramotev (courtesy of Intramoteve).

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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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