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Steaming Ahead to a Better Fuel

Railroad companies investigate benefits of using biodieselblended fuels


By Erin Voegele | June 14, 2011

The railroad is already considered one of

the most environmentally sustainable and
efficient ways to transport freight.
Although most railways address fuel
efficiency in terms of gallonspermile
rather than milespergallon, the sheer
volume of cargo that can be moved by a
single train results in a highly efficient
The U.S. Surface Transportation Board
defines three primary categories of
railroads in the U.S.: Class I, Class II, and
Class III. Shortline railroads, those with
annual operating revenue of less than $20
GREENING THE RAIL: Amtrak recently wrapped up a oneyear
million, are primarily classified Class III.
trial of B20 in its Heartland Flyer.
Regional railroads, those with annual
operating revenue between $20.5 million
and $277.7 million, are generally classified
as Class II. The largest railroads in the U.S.,
defined by the STB as having annual carrier
operating revenues of $250 million or more
are classified Class I. Currently, seven rail lines in the U.S. are recognized as Class I,
including Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CXS Transportation, Canadian National/Grand Trunk,
Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, Soo Line and Union Pacific.
According to the Association of American Railroads, Class I railroads alone operated more than
94,000 miles of track in 2009, with 24,047 locomotive engines in service. During the same year
Class I railroad operationed 1.53 trillion tonmiles. A tonmile equates to 1 ton of freight
moved one mile. Furthermore, the AAR estimates that the average Class I train transported
3,546 tons of cargo 919 miles per trip.
Most locomotive engines in the U.S. are powered by diesel, and the fuel they use to
transport freight is not insignificant. Data published by the STB illustrates that the seven
Class I railroads consumed nearly 964 million gallons of fuel during the first quarter of 2011,
which is a slight increase over the more than 900 million gallons of fuel the same railroads
consumed during the first quarter of 2010.The U.S. Energy Information Administration
estimates that more than 2 billion gallons of distillate fuel oil were used by the railroad in
2009, representing a fraction of the 34 billion gallon onhighway market. However it is
important to note that even a 2 billion gallon market represents the opportunity to blend 100
million gallons of biodiesel into a B5 blend, or 400 million gallons of biodiesel into a B20 blend
of fuel.
Some railroads are beginning to recognize the benefits associated with employing a
renewable fuel in their operations. In fact, Amtrak and BNSF Railway Co. are each
participating in longterm B20 trials. While there are obvious benefits of using renewable fuel
in terms of energy security and reduced carbon emissions, those who wish to fuel locomotive
engines with biodiesel face a different set of challenges than those using the fuel in onroad
The railroad industry is a bit different than trucking in that we use our locomotives for a
very, very long time, says Marc Magliari, Amtraks media relations manager, noting that
there are still some locomotives in the U.S. that have been operating for more than 50 years.
Perhaps most importantly, the reliability has to be incredibly high in order for biodiesel to be



used commercially by railroads. While a company running a trucking fleet likely has spare
trucks that can be utilized if biodieselassociated issues pop up unexpectedly with one
engine, the railroads do not have that luxury. Any fuel that a locomotive uses has to have
little or no impact on locomotive reliability and availability, says Magliari. There really arent
spare locomotives a railway company can rent or otherwise utilize if one in their fleet
becomes inoperable for a period of time.
Amtrak Trial
Amtrak kicked off a oneyear B20 trial in the spring of 2010. The trial, which wrapped up May
15, focused on the Heartland Flyer, a P32 model train purchased in the late 90s that travels
between Ft. Worth, Texas and Oklahoma City, Okla. While it will take several months to
compile and analyze the data gathered during the trial, Roy Deitchman, Amtraks vice
president of environmental, health and safety, says preliminary results seem to indicate the
fuels performance has been acceptable. For the Amtrak part of the trial, were very happy
with the performance, he says. Magliari adds that the trial resulted in no problems related
to operational reliability.
The biodiesel fuel used in the trial has been manufactured using beef tallow as a feedstock.
Magliari stresses that this was not an intentional decision made by Amtrak, rather beef tallow
biodiesel simply happened to be locally available. The B20 was splash blended in a truck using
ULSD, and directly introduced into the locomotive. In other words, the B20 blend was not
stored in a tank prior to fueling the train.
The trial, which was funded with a $274,000 Federal Railroad Administration grant along with
support from the Texas and Oklahoma departments of transportation, includes several
discrete components. Two of the 16cylinder engines assemblies were replaced with brand
new components at the start of the trial. According to Deitchman, detailed measurements of
the gaskets and assemblies were taken at the start of the trial. Following the competition of
the trial, a comparative set of measurements was taken.
Emissions testing is also being completed as part of the project. A locomotive is difficult to
emissions test, Deitchman continues. It has to go on a specially built dynamometer, and
there are only two or three places in the U.S. that do that testing. For Amtraks trial, the
Heartland Flyer will undergo emissions testing at General Electric Co.s facility in Erie, Pa.
The locomotive was built by GE, which is one of the reasons it make sense to take it back to
its manufacturer [for emissions testing], Deitchman says.
A third component of the project involves fuel efficiency. According to Deitchman, Amtraks
dieselpowered locomotives generally consume approximately 1.7 gallon of fuel per mile
traveled. In addition to looking back on trial data, he says Amtrak will likely continue to
operate the Heartland Flyer on biodiesel for a little bit longer, and then switch it over to
ultralow sulfur diesel fuel in an effort to determine if the fuel has any impact on mileage.
According to Deitchman, Amtrak is interested in adding biodiesel to its fuel mix as long as
the fuel is proven to be a viable option. Better mileage and reduced emissions would help
motivate the company to utilize the fuel. One possible impediment is cost. Magliari notes,
however, that the relative cost of biodieselblended fuel has dropped dramatically since
Amtrak first started considering this trial five years ago.
Montana Trial
A similar oneyear B20 trial is also being completed in Montana on the BNSF railway. The
project, which wrapped up July 1, actually grew out of onroad biodiesel trial that was
spearheaded by Montana State UniversityNorthern and Opportunity Link Inc., a local non
profit. The [onroad] trials went so well and got so much press that [we wanted] to do a trial
with some significance on the railroad, said Jessica AlcornWindy Boy, director of MSUNs
BioEnergy Center. She emphasizes that the goal was not to simply run a train for period of
time using a low blend of fuel, such as B5. Rather the goal of the trial was to gather long
term, scientific data that could address the severe winter conditions present in northern
BNSF signed on for the trial. Two of the railways locomotives have been employed in the
trial. One is a control that operates using No. 2 diesel. The other has been fueled with B20 for
one year. The identical locomotives were manufactured in the 1970s. While the locomotive
technology is slightly older, those involved in the trial note the decision to use older
locomotives was intentional as they are no longer covered by manufacturer warrantees.
The B20 is blended onsite in a controlled environment using locally sourced biodiesel. Fuel
samples have been taken from the locomotives on a regular basis and analyzed by MSUN staff
for fuel quality and biodiesel content. According to Nestor Soriano, Jr., lead research

scientist at MSUNs BioEnergy Center, the monthly analysis also addresses oxidation, fuel
stability, acid content and degradation. While most biodiesel produced in the U.S. is sourced
from soy beans, the crop cannot be grown in northern Montana. Rather, the locally produced
biodiesel used in the trial has been manufactured from alternative feedstocks sources,
including camelina, canola and safflower.
The fuel injectors in the engines also undergo regular testing. The locomotives are serviced
after every 92 days of operation. Each time the trains involved the trial have been serviced,
fuel injectors are removed from both locomotives. At the end of the trial, they will be
supplied to the manufacturer, which will disassemble the injectors and analyze them for
wear and other abnormalities.
There is an emissions testing component of the study as well, said Soriano. During the
summer, the team will borrow a portable emissions testing system from the National
Renewable Energy Lab. Soriano says the equipment will allow his team to compare the
emissions that result from the two locomotives.
Economic development is another component of the project. According to Barbara Stiffarm,
executive director of Opportunity Link, a primary goal of her organization is to increase local
opportunities for economic growth. Biodiesel represents a significant opportunity for
economic growth in the region, she continues. The goal is to keep the entire biofuel
operation local, from cultivating the oil seeds, to processing, conversion and use. Stiffarm
notes that Opportunity Link believes railroads could offer an important local market for
biodiesel blended fuel.
The data gathered by the trial could ultimately be used to support the establishment of a
biodiesel mandate for locomotive fuel. We are hopeful that in the future there will be some
sort of [renewable fuel] mandate in the railway industry, Soriano said. We want to identify
the challenges that the railroad industry may face should that mandate come inHopefully,
[if and when that mandate] is established, BNSF and others in the railway industry will have
this data so they can be ready.
Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
(701) 5606986

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