New Hybrid Locomotive's Emissions Are Clean As a Whistle

Los Angeles Times, 3-16-2005
By Wendy Thermos and Deborah Schoch, Times Staff Writers

Union Pacific Railroad put into service one of the nation's first locomotives using environmentally friendly hybrid technology Tuesday, and the company called it an important step toward cutting air pollution generated by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"It's a very efficient technology," said Michael E. Iden, the Union Pacific executive overseeing the company's conversion to a lower-emission fleet. The new breed of rail locomotive combines electric and diesel power and runs almost noiselessly.

"Typically, for about eight hours at a time, you won't even hear the engine running because it's using electricity from the batteries," Iden said.

Air regulators called the new engine a positive move, but said railroads must do more.

Union Pacific and its chief competitor in California, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, are under increasing scrutiny from regulators, who want the rail lines to move more swiftly to reduce toxic emissions, especially in the Los Angeles Basin.

"This general technology, it's great. We support this," said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "The problem is, they're moving too slow to implement this technology."

Growing imports have helped make the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach the single largest source of air pollution in Southern California.

The $800,000 locomotive displayed Tuesday at Union Pacific's rail yard in the City of Commerce is a switch engine that moves cars at slow speeds to hook them up to trains pulled by larger, conventional locomotives.

A hybrid capable of hauling freight cross-country is being developed and might be in use within three years, Union Pacific officials said.

The engine unveiled Tuesday is the first hybrid switching locomotive to be permanently put into service by a large U.S. railroad, Iden said. At least three other hybrids around the country are being used in demonstration projects.

Omaha-based Union Pacific will evaluate the hybrid's performance and decide in coming months whether to order more to begin replacing its older, less-efficient locomotives.

"This is not an idle investment," Iden said, predicting the technology would be a success.

Preliminary data showed the hybrid emits 80% to 90% less nitrous oxide, a precursor of smog, than conventional equipment. It also uses 40% to 70% less diesel fuel. The hybrid runs on electricity until its onboard battery bank, which occupies most of the locomotive, runs low. A 290-horsepower diesel engine then kicks in to recharge the batteries.

The technology is slightly different from that used in automobile hybrids. Vehicles such as the Toyota Prius recharge the battery while braking, but the rail hybrid "does not have that recapture capability," Iden said.

Emissions from diesel-burning locomotives are prompting heightened concerns among residents close to the ports and along rail lines stretching east through Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Diesel fumes, a probable carcinogen, have been linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, joined Wallerstein's call for the railroads to move more quickly.

AQMD officials say the total emissions of nitrous oxides from railroad operations in the South Coast air district are equivalent to the total emissions from the 350 largest stationary sources, including all refineries and power plants.