Freight rail operators Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC) and CSX Corp. today said they will form a joint venture to build and deploy hydrogen locomotive conversion kits for diesel electric locomotives, saying the move could help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The announcement came less than a week after two rail industry groups sued the state of California to stop a rule that would require freight locomotives built in 2035 and afterwords to operate in zero-emissions configurations while in the state, saying the technology to enable that was not yet ready for commercial markets.
Nearly the entire freight locomotive fleet of all railway operators in North America consists of diesel-powered units, representing the industry's most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, CPKC and CSX said. They added that that means rail has an important role to play in a lower carbon economy and the industry needs a long-term, effective alternative fuel solution.
As an initial step in the collaboration, CSX plans to convert one of its diesel locomotives using a hydrogen conversion kit developed by CPKC. The conversion work will be done at CSX’s Huntington, West Virginia, locomotive shop.
“This innovative collaboration expands our hydrogen locomotive program beyond a single railroad and represents an exciting next step in proving the long-term viability of hydrogen as a solution to emissions reduction for our industry,” Keith Creel, CPKC’s president and CEO, said in a release. “Our hydrogen locomotive went from concept to reality in 24 months with the first zero emissions hydrogen locomotive having already pulled freight in revenue service. We look forward to this collaboration as we work to create a lower carbon future.”
The CPKC and CSX initiative is the latest rail industry step to develop cleaner burning locomotives. In December 2020, Canadian Pacific (CP) announced plans to develop North America’s first line-haul hydrogen-powered locomotive by retrofitting a diesel freight locomotive with hydrogen fuel cells and battery technology to drive the locomotive's electric traction motors. That prototype, designed and built by in-house CP engineers, made its first movement under its own power in late 2021. By the end of 2022, the locomotive had made its first revenue moves and now has accumulated more than 1,000 miles of testing in revenue service.
CPKC has also deployed a second hydrogen locomotive for testing in terminal operations, a program expansion supported by funding awarded by Emissions Reduction Alberta and the Government of Canada Low Carbon Economy Fund. The second hydrogen locomotive is expected to enter service later in 2023.
The new partnership follows previous efforts to design green locomotives including a January announcement by California regional rail operator Sierra Northern Railway and its partner Valley Vision that they planned to build a “zero emission hydrogen switching locomotive.”
Another hydrogen initiative comes from Pittsburgh-based Wabtec Corp., which announced plans in 2021 to collaborate with automaker General Motors on commercializing GM's Ultium battery technology and HYDROTEC hydrogen fuel cell systems for Wabtec locomotives. In a statement at the time, Wabtec said that the rail industry “is on the cusp of a sustainable transformation with the introduction of batteries and hydrogen to power locomotive fleets."
In 2022, Union Pacific Railroad announced the purchase of 10 of those FLXdrive battery-electric locomotives from Wabtec, marking the largest investment in battery technology by a North American railroad at the time.
However, most of the investment in cutting freight train emissions to date have come from “modernizing” existing locomotives. For example, Norfolk Southern Corp. said in 2022 that it would invest $275.6 million in funding from green bonds to convert locomotives from DC to AC electric power, thus improving fuel efficiency. And Wabtec itself in 2021 celebrated its 1,000th locomotive modernization in North and South America—likewise citing DC-to-AC conversions—saying the upgrades delivered better fuel efficiency, reliability, haulage ability, and maintenance.