Pittsburgh-based rail company Wabtec has unveiled the first battery-electric freight train. Dubbed the FLXdrive, this locomotive is a strong first step toward sustainability in railway shipping, an industry that’s responsible for about a quarter of all U.S. transportation emissions. Unfortunately, it’s still just a first step in a very long process.
Wabtec says that the FLXdrive’s 7-megawatt battery has “100 times the power and energy” of a Tesla. It’s an impressive product, and it marks an interesting change for the rail freight industry. Up until this point, rail companies have almost unilaterally supported the fossil fuel industry. It’s a symbiotic relationship—coal companies have kept railways alive at a time when semi-trucks and other vehicles dominate the world of shipping.
But rail companies are in an ironic position. More and more businesses are promising to go carbon neutral, increasing the demand for sustainable shipping. If trains can get there first, they could become a more popular shipping option than trucks, reversing the longstanding trend that made rail companies reliant on the fossil fuel industry in the first place. Or in the words of Wabtec Cheif Technology Officer Eric Gebhardt, “If we decarbonize all of the locomotives and decrease the number of trucks, we will get to where we need to be.”
Today is a great day to make the push toward sustainability. The Biden administration just announced its climate change plan and is expected to funnel money into industries that could reverse climate trends. We don’t know how the climate plan will impact the railway, though a handful of politicians (and thousands of constituants) see it as an important piece of the climate change puzzle.
But Wabtec’s battery-electric locomotives won’t replace diesel trains just yet. While these trains are quite powerful, they can’t get across the U.S. on their own. Diesel is about 27 times more energy-dense than lithium-ion, so for the time being, the FLXdrive is simply a means to reduce locomotive emissions.
Companies that buy the FLXdrive will place it between two or three diesel locomotives, effectively turning the whole train into a hybrid vehicle. As the train brakes, its batteries will recharge, leading to an impressive 30% reduction in fuel usage. Wabtec says that better batteries or even hydrogen fuel cells (which are questionable from an environmental standpoint) could decrease fossil fuel emissions to an even greater degree.
One last note—you don’t need batteries to electrify a train. But running power lines alongside train tracks, which often run through remote areas, would require a ton of new infrastructure (IE: more up-front spending than a basic climate package). Still, I would like to see Webtec incorporate old-fashioned power lines in its FLXdrive locomotive plans, as they could recharge a battery-powered train while it drives through areas with sufficient infrastructure.