Thursday, March 6, 2008

Future Train

IMAGINE A MACHINE OF THE FUTURE that moves goods by the ton--by tens of thousands of tons--along specialized transportation corridors. Guided by computers, tracked by GPS and driven by powerful new engines, this revolutionary, high-tech vehicle slashes America's energy consumption and leaves the air cleaner than any mechanized transport before it. At a time when highways are clogged and fuel reserves are strained, it represents a miracle technology that arrives not a moment too soon. It's been under development for more than 200 years, yet it is the transportation of the future. Meet the freight train, reborn.

Railroading helped define development in the United States, but by the 1970s it seemed doomed to gradual decay and obsolescence. Today, it is a growth industry. "Railroads have led in innovation to a degree that people don't realize," says Gary Wolf, owner of Rail Sciences, a leading accident investigation firm. Railroads have helped pioneer computerized freight management, and have pushed the envelope on power, efficiency and mechanical ingenuity to move their cargo ever faster and more cheaply. Roughly 42 percent of all U.S. freight moves by train, some 5 billion ton-miles per day on 140,000 miles of track. Volume records have been set each of the past three years--partly because it takes about a third as much fuel to move a ton of freight by rail as by truck. The innovations being introduced in the next few years will overshadow those of the past, with some of the biggest changes coming in energy efficiency. That's an arena where railroads already trounce the competition--and where the nation is in serious need of problem-solving.

FUEL EFFICIENCY COMES TOGETHER noisily under the roof of the 3.8-million-sq.-ft. General Electric factory in Erie, Pa., which is crawling with hundreds of electricians, welders, pipe fitters and helmeted supervisors toting clipboards. Pneumatic tools hiss and clatter as a crane arm lifts a massive locomotive assembly up and turns it over--manipulating 400,000 pounds of steel as if it were hollow tin. Once a crew has installed sensitive electronics on the undercarriage, the crane will deposit the 75-ft.-long, 16-ft.-high hulk of steel back onto the factory floor and the Evolution locomotive will have largely taken shape.

The Evolution is a smarter, faster locomotive, designed to meet EPA emissions requirements that came into effect in 2005. It features a new control system, a new 12-cylinder diesel engine (producing as much power as its predecessor's 16-cylinder powerplant) and a first-of-its-kind air-to-air cooling system that helps the engine burn more cleanly. It will consume at least 200,000 fewer gallons of fuel in its lifetime than previous goliaths of the rails.

While the Evolution is being built, engineers at GE are already working furiously on a prototype for a still more efficient locomotive, a high-horsepower hybrid that captures energy given off by its brakes, just like a hybrid car. In one sense, virtually all American freight locomotives are hybrids: Their diesel engines turn alternators that feed current to electric motors. Additionally, locomotives supplement their airbrakes with dynamic braking, which helps slow a train by converting the motion of its wheels into electric current. Normally, this electricity goes to waste. However, the hybrid locomotive will store and reuse the energy--once engineers figure out how to harness a flow of electricity that dwarfs anything normal batteries can handle. The battery array has to store about 1500 kilowatt-hours, enough to run 50 American households for a day.

Once it works, though, the process should pony up about 2000 hp. Engineers expect the technology to cut fuel usage and emissions 15 percent below the Evolution's level. "If you replace all locos in North America with our hybrid, you will save half a billion dollars per year just in fuel," says the hybrid's project manager, Gagan Sood.

The planned locomotive won't be the first hybrid model. In 2002, Canada's RailPower Industries introduced the Green Goat, a low-horsepower machine, for use in switching cars at railyards. That's hurry-up-and-wait work that involves hours spent idling and, for most locomotives, belching clouds of nitrogen-oxide-laden exhaust that dirties the air and promotes acid rain. The Green Goat draws 85 percent of its energy from a 1200-ampere-hour battery made up of 336 2-volt cells; the locomotive produces just 10 to 20 percent of the NOx emissions of its pure diesel counterparts. It's already in wide use in the United States.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
FREIGHT LINER A GPS-linked unit high in the cab helps direct a 95-mph train near Kalamazoo, Mich.

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