BNSF, Vehicle Projects build experimental shunting locomotive

In the US, BNSF Railway Company is building an experimental shunting train locomotive powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The engine, which is being assembled at the company’s workshop in Topeka, Kansas, will serve as a test bed for reducing diesel fuel used by North America’s railway.

BNSF believes that fuel cell technology is preparing the way for a future locomotive fleet that is not dependent on oil, as well as offering the potential to reduce air pollution.

'While it is not a proven technology and the project is still in its infancy, we believe investments like the fuel cell switching [shunting] locomotive are important for the advancement of new technology,’ says Craig Hill, BNSF’s vice-president of mechanical & value engineering, in a report in Railway Gazette International.

The company is working with Vehicle Projects LLC, a private engineering company based in Denver which has been developing and demonstrating prototype fuel cell vehicles for various modes. Since 2003 the company has also been working on a project sponsored by the US Department of Defense, to develop a locomotive powered by a 1.2 MW PEM fuel cell system.

The two companies insist that the latest prototype, which is being assembled by BNSF’s mechanical department using a former Railpower Green Goat hybrid as the platform, is strictly a train test bed.

According to the report, the experimental locomotive will carry compressed hydrogen on board in tanks similar to those used in fuel cell road vehicles. The electricity generated on board the train by the fuel cell power module will be stored in batteries or fed directly to the locomotive’s high-voltage propulsion system. This engine is expected to be two to three times more fuel-efficient than a standard US diesel locomotive.

BNSF envisages that the hydrogen will be generated off-vehicle using electricity drawn from a number of available sources, including nuclear, wind or solar power.

Vehicle Projects and BNSF had hoped to begin testing the completed unit last year, but are now expecting to start operations during 2009. The locomotive is also expected to visit the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado for testing by the Federal Railroad Administration.

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