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All aboard! EV trains are pulling out of the station
And it turns out the conversion to batteries is easy-peasy
(A native of England, Matthew Diebel is a veteran journalist who has worked at NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp., among other organizations. Having spent his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal energy.)
Remember those battery-powered toy locomotives you played with as a kid? How you picked them up, turned them on and watched them race around the tracks (and likely crash)?
Well — in a reversal of playthings being copies of the original object — some real trains are going battery-powered, thus helping reduce the 1% of American transportation emissions caused by railroad operations. (That figure may seem small, but it leads to an estimated 1,000 premature deaths and $6.5 billion in health costs a year, according to the National Academy of Sciences.)
The situation in the U.S. is very different than in Europe, where most lines are electrified. With longer distances covered, American trains tend to be diesel-powered due to the heavy cost of erecting electric cables, third rails and other equipment along millions of miles of railroads.
Batteries, however, provide a neat pollution solution and can relatively easily be incorporated on existing locomotives, which are usually powered by diesels that generate electricity to power electric motors.
In a small way, the battery-train movement has already left the station, with some all-electric locomotives already begun rolling on California tracks, reports Wired. As part of a demonstration with the Pacific Harbor Line, Progress Rail, a Caterpillar (CAT) company, began operating battery-electric locomotives in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach late last year.
And last week, the Union Pacific Railroad (UNP) agreed to buy 20 battery-electric freight locomotives from Wabtec (WAB) and Progress Rail in a deal worth more than $100 million.
The number and size of the batteries involved are a far cry from those in EVs. For instance, Wabtec says its next-generation battery locomotive will have a storage capacity of up to 7 megawatt-hours, nearly 100 times that of a Tesla Model 3.
And the changeover doesn’t just make environmental sense. Last fall, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability predicted that retrofitting traditional diesel locomotives with battery power could save railroads $94 billion in fuel costs over 20 years.
“This is the beauty,” said Berkeley’s Amol Phadke, a co-author of the study. “Because they already are electric, if someone decides to do it they can do it in a month. All you're doing is adding a railcar which has a huge amount of batteries on it.”
Almost as simple as that toy train.