Locomotives May Shake Up the Transportation Fuels Market

Natural gas locomotives on the Canadian National Railway, similar to the LNG powered units BNSF will be testing soon.

Natural gas locomotives being tested on the Canadian National Railway, similar to the LNG powered units BNSF will be testing soon. LNG tank car is directly behind the locomotive.

What do locomotives have to do with transportation fuels? Maybe a lot. Warren Buffet, who owns BNSF Railway Co., the largest railroad and one of the largest consumers of diesel fuel in the US, is planning to begin testing the use of natural gas as fuel for the locomotives in the 6900 unit BNSF fleet. Others have been been experimenting with natural gas, too, but BNSF, in conjunction with GE and Caterpillar, is working on the technology to try it out. If the tests are successful, it could change the landscape of much of the transportation fuel market.

Natural gas exists in enormous quantities in the US and the price is very low compared to most any other fuel, but widespread adoption for transportation has been slow because the infrastructure for fueling isn't in place except in limited areas which in turn slows the growth of vehicle demand in a back and forth question of who's going to make the first move. BNSF, using as much diesel fuel as it does, has a huge incentive to look for alternatives and cheap natural gas is, well, a natural. If they move, it makes a difference and gives other railroads the confidence to jump in, too. With locomotives on set routes, it's easy to build the LNG infrastructure to supply them which could then potentially spread the availability of natural gas in one form or another for long haul trucks, as well.

If trains switch to LNG in place of diesel fuel, the demand for diesel will decrease, helping to stabilize prices and making us less dependent on unreliable sources. It also makes more oil available for use in gasoline, increasing the supply, stabilizing prices and again, making us less dependent on oil from elsewhere. Increasing use of natural gas for transportation decreases emissions, too, especially compared to diesel.

Though motorcycles are probably the least likely vehicles to be converted to natural gas in any numbers, the effect on the price and availability of all of the other transportation fuels makes this locomotive conversion to LNG very interesting. It's also a pretty cool evolution, from the coal burning steam locomotives to the diesel burning locomotives we currently use to the new LNG powered trains. It won't happen overnight, retrofitting old units and buying new will take time, but it doesn't have to happen all at once to make a big difference.

While everyone is waiting for the magic batteries to appear, this is a technology that's here right now and it can have some very positive effects in both lower cost and lower emissions. It sounds like a big win to me, I like it.

Link: Wall Street Journal


  1. says

    I think it makes sense in a situation like trains, if the payoff is there for lower fuel costs. It could provide a competitive advantage for transporting costs to be lower than their competitor.
    Nothing wrong with that.

    Could be viable for long-distance trucking too, if they have a fueling network.

    • Svein Skavik says

      Shipping is another area that is turning to LPG and CNG , some ferries , which are well suited have changed and Singapore is setting up infrastructure for ships. ships are already required to switch over to diesel in most ports which is twice as expensive as heavy fuel oil (HFO) which is a filthy tar like fuel which releases enormous amounts of sulpher

    • mark says

      Could be viable for long-distance trucking too, if they have a fueling network.

      Maybe – there was a book i recall that was advocating using gas for American trucking . I think – the author was on the daily show i think – the hurdle would be the gas tank. As you see in the picture the tank is quite sizable though for sure its for long haul with the train but i think there would be space constraints for trucking. Also liquefaction could improve density but a energy cost. Either way due to the gas price im sure the there will be more uses for gas. Also combined with more integrated transport systems the reduction in CO2 will be sizable and also because the gas is locally produced – fracking and drilling – less dependence on Arab oil. Great to see

  2. mark says

    Do you live in Colorado or just grow your own? The reason LNG conversion is not widespread in this country is called BIG OIL. Same reason for Electric, Hydrogen, even the Pogue Carburetor. Throw in some Corporate greed, avarice, etc., and the recipe for non-green is complete.

    • JP Kalishek says

      energy density. Try crossing the nation in a CNG/LNG vehicle. There are places in Montana you can’t cross with the current conversions as they have not the range. One barely makes it on petroleum fuels which have a better density.
      Also accidents become even more hazardous. High pressure tankage and a decent car wreck are not anything I want to be within a mile of.

      • Paul Crowe says

        LNG, liquified natural gas, is not under high pressure, it’s just very cold and the tank car is insulated to keep the gas in liquid form. For a tank of a given size, LNG stores more energy than CNG, compressed natural gas. As noted in the article, since you have a set route for trains, you can far more easily set up the refueling infrastructure and make any distance possible. Also, CNG tanks are extremely durable and will withstand very high impact without releasing any gas.

        Crossing the nation in a CNG vehicle? JT Nesbitt built the Magnolia Special and did just that.

        • Gildas says

          This is a “hot topic” in the maritime sector.
          Ships that can run an anything from LNG to HFO at 55% efficiency and the are in production as we speak.
          55% is pushing the limits of thermodynamics, and cannot go higher until a solution for NOX generation at high temp can be found.
          GE is working on very high temperature burn for their turbines that apparently works in the lab (and goes against all that I’m learning). So we might even see a return of the gaz turbine on cargo boats if that pans out.
          Exiting times indeed.

            • Gildas says

              LNG carriers use the cook-off to power their trip on otherwise wasted gas. Cruise ships use LNG as a supplemental power pack – or as primary power when environmental regulation force it (a good diesel is far more efficient).
              But there are far less gas turbines than what would be logical to install due to a massive worldwide shortage of skilled labor to maintain them – and the ridiculous prices this labor can charge.
              That’s why I’m doing a 3 year full time course to become a Engineering Watch officer and I’ll be specializing in turbines :)

    • Renegade_Azzy says

      Big Government shut down the backing on Hydrogen to back its electric flop, the Volt.

    • mark says

      I do renewable energy and yes there is a role big oil plays in distorting the possibility but also a big reason is cost, maturity of technology and people being conservative to new ways. As energy costs rise, new ways will be explored this is just one small example. But yes big oil has a vested interest.

  3. JP Kalishek says

    the real issue is WB is a big $$$ donor who opposes a pipeline you may have heard of. And just coincidentally the recipient of most of the $$$$ WB donates has worked to block said pipeline as well. Seems WB makes a mint moving a bit of that oil by rail, and also gets some from what cant be piped here being sold the the Chinese.

    • Paul Crowe says

      Politics aside, I think using LNG in these locomotives is a real positive because it takes advantage of low cost natural gas and reduces emissions.

      Warren Buffet, unfortunately, has become highly political in recent years so whenever he makes a move like this, you have to wonder what his motivations really are and that’s sad.

    • Travis says

      The XL Pipline being built will raise gas prices here in America, why? because currently without a pipeline, the extra oil is being sold to Americans, the transport costs are too great otherwise. But once the pipeline is built they will be able to sell to China, like they want to. Which is the reason they want to build the pipeline in the first place, and why the proposed route isn’t going to the refineries but to the harbor.

  4. B50 Jim says

    Nifty! We went from thundering steam locomotives pulling their fuel in tenders to humming diesel locomotives carrying their fuel, to a LNG diesel pulling its fuel in a tender. While I’m a huge fan of steam locomotives — there is NOTHING like being near a big steam loco when the engineer opens the throttle — they were hugely inefficient in terms of fuel usage and maintenance, and the diesels were better in all ways. A LNG diesel is the next logical step. With this country producing vast amounts of natural gas — enough for our own use with plenty left over for export — it makes sense to use it as a motor fuel, too. The technology has been available for decades, is common and in place. We only need some infrastructure upgrades and it will be a good alternative until Paul’s “magic batteries” show up.

    Railroads are an obvious first application for LNG power, with long-haul trucking next and finally private vehicles. I don’t know if motorcycles will adopt LNG because of the need for a big fuel tank, but who knows? There probably is a way.

    I’m all in favor of using U.S.-produced natural gas to fuel the nation’s fleet, as long as the extraction process is carefully monitored and regulated to minimize hazards and environmental damage. This can be done at a reasonable cost. Amazing — the United States has gone from being an energy importer to an exporter, with more potential on the horizon. Just shows you how wrong dire predictions of all kinds can be. Still, we can’t abandon research on alternative energy; going forward, the world’s energy picture is chaotic and violent, and we mustn’t sit back and rest. The added profits from selling natural gas as a motor fuel can and should go in part to finance energy research of all kinds so this nation never again finds itself held hostage to a few hotheads holding all the cards. We can put them out of the game.

    • Paul says

      “the United States has gone from being an energy importer to an exporter,”

      That is not true, the US is importing large9but shrinking) quantities of crude oil and natural gas. The confusion arises in that the US has started exporting refined products, mainly diesel.


  5. dan says

    This is significant in many arenas one being the whole train verses semi debate for efficiency roadway upkeep costs verses rail upkeep and lastly greenhouse gasses. Semis can convert to natural gas injected diesel engines to reduce emissions as much as 90% already required in the Los Angeles shipping docks. The point is rail ways are better then semis in my opinion for shipping and natural gas injected semis for local hauling should be the goal as well as bio fuel for planes the biggest fuel hogs! Thanks!

  6. Paulinator says

    Propane was extremely popular in western Canada during the eighties and early nineties because of its attractive price at the pumps. The only vehicles that tended to explode a lot were cabs parked in-doors on cold nights. (They were block-busters, so to speak). LNG/CNG shouldn’t be any worse. The public transit industry is on to LNG/CNG in a big way. Deisel engine architecture works beautifully and the system is so cost-effective that regen-braking/hybrid is pointless because the pay-back from any savings would extend beyond the normal vehicle lifespan. besides, I feel way better about “Natural” gas than I do about the rear-earth and heavy metals that are used by today’s eco-auto fashionistas.

  7. Hawk says

    LNG or CNG are probably naturals for locomotive power and, as stated, not a big problem to build the required fuelling stations. In a worst case scenario, I could see bringing a loaded fuel tender to an out of range locomotive or the usage of more than one tender over certain trackage.

    However, when we speak of it as an alternative fuel for trucks, busses and cars I fail to see allowances built in to accomodate road taxes. In many cases, the price of gasoline or diesel is over 50% tax. Natural Gas may be a bargain fuel right now but that’s mainly due to a small market. Creating a larger market will certainly increase prices even before the tax man gets to it.

    With other alternative fuels, some which are difficult to tax (electricity, for example) I think we’re going to see a “Mileage Tax” before too long. Never underestimate the Government’s ability to impose new taxes.

    • Paulinator says

      Speaking of roads, a portion of every barrel of extracted crude oil is used to construct roads…the co-product is the sludge at the bottom of the cracking tower, called bitumen or asphalt. If natural gas becomes a significant energy source for over-the-road transportation, I wonder if we will see artificial bitumen plants turning natural gas into asphalt to re-establish balance in the cosmos.

      p.s. Does the EPA publish how much VOC emissions are released from the American road network over a 12 hour span of sunshine at average summer temperatures?

  8. Dano says

    In the 60’s I lived in Japan. All of the taxi cabs in Tokyo ran on LNG. Many of the other cars and trucks used it also. They had what essentially a thermos bottle in the trunk, behind the rear passenger seat, for the gas. In the early 70’s a friends father owned a propane company and his Elcamino had a tank in the bed that it ran on. It was a 350 and ran great.
    I also visited a very progressive farm in Pa. that uses the manure to generate electricity with the methane they captured. They have 6 large Caterpillar engines connected to generators to produce the energy.
    They also have laser guided milking systems (DeLaval) that automatically milk the cows. My wife and I spent the day with Richard Waybright (82) then and were amazed at the history of innovation that has come out of that farm.
    We need more application of LPG in this country, it’s as safe as gasoline.

  9. Mikey says

    I gotta step up:
    I love trains. I could have been an engineer in a past life… so here goes.
    To apply the brakes means you have to deal with tons of mass all moving in a certain direction and it wants to continue the moving. The locomotive is one place were the brakes may be commanded, the caboose is the other. When you apply the brakes from two locations, you cut the response time in half thus improving performance. And not surprisingly, keeping the engineer up front from being killed because he couldn’t stop or slow down quickly enough.
    That “Caboose” is a throwback to times when there weren’t any alternatives to actually having a people back there at the end of the train. And their job was only one thing: to apply the brakes for the train in front of them on command from the driver way out there in front. The drivers commands were given by various means, mostly by whistle/horn.
    (you didn’t think they just randomly blew that noisemaker any old time they wanted to, did you? There are rules…)
    Then the brakeman applied the brakes by means of cranking down a brake wheel to mechanically clamp on the brakes. Every caboose has two of these brake wheels, easily accessible on each end of the car.
    But, as trains grew larger and faster, operators became aware that there was no way a single brakeman at the end could actually keep up with all the braking demands on a real time speeding train with a half a billion tons of freight.
    These days, there’s a radio controlled brakeman, a robot in effect, whose job duplicates that people job. Always on, always operating, always available.

    • Mikey says

      I know that long winded reply didn’t answer the question,
      “Why is there a caboose on a four car train?”
      There’s only one real answer,
      It’s photo op, OK?
      Not having a caboose would be almost unthinkable, right?
      So they nailed a caboose onto an experimental engine conscript just to have
      something that looks good.
      Otherwise, John Q Public’s gonna ask questions about that single tank car in the middle there…

      • Bart says

        The pic is of a test setup for tuning LNG fueled locomotives. The first engine is a puller, then the LNG fuel tank. The second engine is operated in brake-mode to load the front engine. The caboose holds the “engineers” and technicians collecting test data on laptops and monitering performance/administering the test parameters.

        LNG-powered trains is a good idea, they will burn so much cleaner, I bet the motors will run almost forever and the engine oil will remain much cleaner, allowing way more engine hours between oil changes.

  10. Mohawk says

    Only one problem with the whole scenario & that is the “America has huge reserves of NG” well FYi that is a pipe dream. The latest reports show fracking which has pushed up NG output & crashed its cost over the last couple of years is actually NOT sustainable & most areas are dry in less than 12months. The expected total gas recovery is much less than previously bandied about. Expect to see NG Fracking go the same way as Corn ethanol a few years ago. Loads of hype, massive initial investment, then systematic collapse due to loss of resource.

    The Canadian Tar Sands projects are burning up huge amounts of NG to create liquid crude oil from solids. They would be better to stop the oil production & use that gas for this kind of project. But its all cost derived, no logic is applied, if I can buy this for X & make Y then sell it for Z then I WILL, so they do, until the cost equation fails, then they move the money elsewhere to work & leave a massive environmental nightmare behind !

    • OMMAG says

      Oil sands …. not tar sands and the gas they are using to liquify the crude is being used because there is not enough demand for ir to be sent to the refining and distribution systems.

      As soon as demand for NGas goes up … so will the price and so the value propsition will diminish. There is NO FREE LUNCH!

  11. says

    Good Old Warren… and if this lowers the price of Diesel over here in the UK (currently paying £1.43 a litre) I’ll even start eating more of his Heinz Baked Beans…
    The price of Diesel fuel oil as used in cars in going to go up in the EU (next year?) as the ships and car ferries are having to change from what they currently use to more car/truck orientated stuff so thats that plan out of the window – bugger!!

  12. Brian J says

    Makes me wonder what the home heating price NG will be when we start consuming in vehicles. Oil heating used to be cheap, 100 years ago, not so much now. Is this just moving shells on the table? One wonders.

  13. says

    Nat Gas should be applied to all commercial vehicles where applicable. The black smoke’ash that emits from their stacks has always made me sick. I have long been for getting diesel fuels out of vehicles used on public roads and trains gas powered makes alot of sense to me.

    • Gildas says

      You should check out AB motors from Belgium. They “solved” particulate emissions for medium speed diesels by not letting combustion occur at temps and pressures where particulates formation happens.
      It’s very new tech only just going into production.
      It involves inline turbos, common rail injection and some very exotic inlet/exhaust conduits (not sure how to say it) and valve control.
      I have no idea if you could scale it to low or high speed diesels.