For the past two weeks train industry executives from around the US have been holding private meetings to discuss the potential of using natural gas to power the trains, rather than diesel. The idea is popular amongst train operators, with some describing it as a huge transition in locomotive technology, similar to the move from coal engines to diesel.
Doug Longman, a researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory, said that “the railroads would really like to be able to use natural gas in their locomotives. It’s a cost issue.” Last year, the rising diesel prices led to the annual fuel bill for Union Pacific Railroad to reach $3.6 billion, accounting for 26 percent of overall expenses; up from 13 percent of total costs back in 2001. (Related Article: Drowning in Natural Gas: Is the Answer Exports?)
The rail companies are confident that natural gas prices will remain low, giving them an advantage over diesel. Currently natural gas tends to sell for $1 - $2 less per gallon than diesel, and with industry leaders consuming one billion gallons of fuel a year, that sort of price difference can lead to hundreds of millions of dollars savings.
Although switching to natural gas isn’t all about savings.
The diesel engines used presently by locomotives would have to be modified to run on natural gas, which according to Normand Pellerin, the assistant vice president for environment and sustainability for Canadian National Railways, would cost an estimated $600,000 to $1,000,000 each. (Related Article: Iran's People Suffer as Oil Income Protects the Government from Hyperinflation)
Another obstacle blocking the success of the idea is the storage of the natural gas in order to power the train as it travels around the country. This dilemma was at the heart of most of the discussions that took place over the last two weeks, and the favourite solution which they hope the government will approve, was to reintroduce a relic. A relic is one of the carts that used to carry coal for coal engines. That extra ‘fuel cart’ could be used to contain a large tank of LNG.