CP and CN set sights on putting first zero-emission locomotives into operation
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Mar 2, 2022
Kerry Banks

After both companies announced their first forays into the market last year — CP choosing hydrogen fuel cell, CN buying battery-electric — they are now readying plans to put their pilots into service in late 2022 and 2023

Canadian Pacific and Canadian National will be deploying zero-emission locomotives. Photo: Canadian Pacific/Twitter

After both companies announced their first forays into the market last year — CP choosing hydrogen fuel cell, CN buying battery-electric — they are now readying plans to put their pilots into service in late 2022 and 2023

Few business rivalries run as deep as that between Canada’s two national railway companies, Calgary-based Canadian Pacific and Montreal’s Canadian National.

Takeover battles and boardroom clashes have defined their relationship for years. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that when both companies recently unveiled their first zero-emission alternatives to diesel-powered locomotives, one chose hydrogen fuel cell and the other battery-electric.

In October, CP released an image of its first prototype, a distinctive green and blue locomotive known as the H2 OEL, which stands for Hydrogen Zero Emissions Locomotive. A North American first, the H2 OEL is retrofit of an existing diesel-electric linehaul locomotive (linehaul locomotives move freight and passenger cars between yards and terminals) in which hydrogen fuel cell and battery technology now power the unit’s electric traction motors rather than a diesel engine.

Just weeks later, CN announced the purchase of its first battery-electric freight locomotive from Wabtec, a Pittsburgh-based manufacturer. The locomotive will feature the second generation of Wabtec’s FLXDrive battery-electric technology, with a seven MWh battery capacity.

CN expects delivery of the new locomotive in 2023. It plans to use it on the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad on a 224-kilometre route that runs from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to Conneaut, Ohio.

CP is aiming to have its first prototype (three are planned) ready for full testing on its main line by the end of 2022.

Baby steps to zero-emission locomotives

Canada’s railroad industry emits about four per cent of the country’s overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, burning through two billion litres of diesel fuel a year. Virtually all of that is consumed by the freight sector, so it makes sense that rail companies should be looking to alternatives.

Yet, in the big scheme these companies’ moves are baby steps and underscore the fact that weaning freight locomotives off their diesel fuel habit will not be a simple task — due to the massive amount of energy that needs to be replaced and the early-stage nature of most potential replacement zero-emission technologies.

Both CN and CP declined Electric Autonomy Canada’s requests for interviews. But Peter Eggleton, a Montreal-based transportation consultant, says much of the impetus for the zero-emission pilots is pressure from investors telling CN and CP that their continued investment is “dependent upon them showing real action toward lowering their carbon footprint.”

The fact that the two rail companies are pursuing different strategies reflects “different corporate mindsets,” says Eggleton. “CN is more conservative, more cautious. CP is more willing to take risks. They have always been known as the cowboys.”

Although CN’s new zero-emission locomotive is 100 per cent electric, it needs to be deployed in tandem with other diesel locomotives (known as a “consist”). Housed in a traditional locomotive body, the new battery system drives the axles of the train and uses the kinetic energy of the train’s braking to partially recharge the battery. The purchase was partially funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and, according to the CN, when used in conjunction with other locomotives, can reduce a train’s fuel consumption and emissions by up to 30 per cent.

While CN was one of Wabtec’s first customers, since then the company has announced larger deals with Union Pacific railway as well as two global mining companies, BHP and Rio Tinto.

Retrofit versus replacement locomotives

CP’s hydrogen fuel-cell approach may be more complicated, but it doesn’t require purchasing new locomotives to achieve a zero-emission rating. Instead, existing models can be retrofitted. As Kyle Mulligan, CP’s assistant vice-president of operations technology, noted at a smart rail technology conference in November, most diesel locomotives, including CP’s, are actually hybrids. “They have electric traction motors that are powered by a diesel engine. If you remove that diesel engine and alternator and replace it with zero emission technology, you already have a platform that can leverage that electric input to provide traction,” he said.

CP invested $15 million in creating the prototype. A matching $15-million grant from Emissions Reduction Alberta, announced last fall, has allowed CP to expand the project to include the zero-emission conversion of two other different types of locomotives as well as installing hydrogen production facilities in Edmonton and Calgary.

The Calgary facility will include an electrolysis plant to produce hydrogen from water and operate on renewable power from solar panels at CP’s headquarters campus. The Edmonton facility consists of a small-scale steam methane reformation system to generate hydrogen from Alberta’s natural gas resources. CP says one of its goals is to create a “global centre of excellence” in hydrogen and freight rail systems in Alberta.

Speaking at a Railtrends conference last November, CP president and CEO Keith Creel said about the company’s new hydrogen-powered locomotive: “I think this could be a needle-mover for the industry.” But he also emphasized that this is an experiment. “And again, it may not work out. But I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems is providing CP with 14 fuel cell modules, each with a power output of 200 kW. As Kate Charlton, vice-president of investor relations at Ballard, notes, “Companies are under pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” adding that the sector of “heavy transportation is where hydrogen fuel cells can express their strongest value.”

Cost and competing zero-emission technologies

Currently, cost remains a major hurdle for hydrogen fuel cell technology, however. “Hydrogen fuel cells are produced in a very labour-intensive manner. They cost $1,000 per kW to produce,” says Eggleton, who has been researching fuel cell technology for trains since 2013. “For a 200kW fuel cell that is $200,000. If they could find a way to automate the process that would bring the cost down.”

Despite this obstacle, as well as the lack of an established infrastructure for hydrogen production (green or otherwise), Eggleton believes that by 2030 there will commercially available hydrogen-powered locomotives.

But, as with other transportation sectors, opinions vary. Paul Blomerus, an industry consultant who has researched the electrification of the railroad industry and is now executive director at Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping in Vancouver, doubts that hydrogen fuel cell technology can ever make economic sense in the freight sector. “It might work for switch locomotives when you don’t need as much power and range, but it has no practical application for a long-haul freight,” he says.

Blomerus isn’t any more bullish on battery-electric, however. Instead, he believes a better solution is to use catenary technology, a system in which overhead wires allow current to flow through to the train and back to a feeder station through the steel wheels on one or both running rails. This system, says Blomerus, is already used effectively in Europe, Russia, and China for both passenger and freight trains.

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