Written by Alec MacDonald Wednesday, 01 August 2012 17:56
Attendees of the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair witnessed the dawn of a new era when, on the evening of May 26, a flashy silver train rolled into town for the festivities. Since departing from Denver that morning, this futuristic marvel had zoomed 1,015 miles without a stop, and in half the normal time for that route. No locomotive had ever before managed more than 775 miles at once — but this was no ordinary locomotive.
Branded the Zephyr by its owners at Burlington Railroad, the three-car train could top 110 miles per hour. A streamlined, stainless steel design and a low center of gravity contributed to its swiftness, but the primary reason the vehicle ran so fast was its power source. Steam locomotives had dominated the landscape up until that point, but the Zephyr relied upon a diesel engine. Its record-breaking run from Denver to Chicago showcased the superior efficiency of this more modern engine, and marked the start of a sea change in the rail industry.
Demonstrations of emerging technology serve an important role in the process of updating aging infrastructure. The Zephyr’s engineers had confidence it could exceed existing standards, but they had to show proof in order to ensure the diesel engine would catch on and eventually supplant steam locomotion. Thanks in part to their efforts, the diesel engine remains in widespread use today, although engineers continually seek to improve it through research and development.
Relatively recently, they’ve begun to focus more on reducing engine emissions in particular, due to regulations on locomotive air pollution. Surprisingly enough, the federal government did not adopt any such regulations until 1997, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed limits on the emission of carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter. The EPA tightened these limits in 2008, specifically targeting locomotive engines that would be built in the future.
In anticipation, Burlington Railroad — now known as BNSF Railway after a 1995 corporate merger — has another demonstration in the works. This one lacks the high profile of the Zephyr, and won’t revolutionize the industry in the same way, but it has substantial value for attempting to safeguard public health.
BNSF has been testing ceramic micro-crystalline filters at its railyard in Richmond. Supplied by a specialty manufacturer, these innovative filters have been installed on the three engines of a switcher locomotive, a utility vehicle which rearranges train cars inside the railyard. As originally constructed, the switcher met the EPA’s Tier 3 emissions standards; researchers hope the integration of the filters will allow it to meet or exceed Tier 4 standards. The difference represents a 70 percent reduction in diesel particulate matter, a toxic air contaminant with the potential to cause cancer, respiratory illness, and heart disease.
Richmond Railyard switcher locomotives produce 1.16 tons per year of this harmful substance, according to a California Air Resources Board health risk assessment of the location. Understanding the significance of this hazard, CARB has paid half the cost of the filter project, providing $270,000 out of its Air Quality Improvement Program. This grant was secured by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which will administer the project.
The two government agencies have also partnered on a second switcher demonstration. Instead of retrofitting an existing locomotive with filters, this other project involves fabricating an entire locomotive from scratch. The roles remain the same, with CARB furnishing the funding and the Air District handling the coordination. Of the $1.7 million budget for the Tier 4 switcher locomotive, $530,000 will come out of the Air Quality Improvement Program; National Railway Equipment Company, which will manufacture the prototype, has agreed to foot the rest of the bill.
The locomotive is not likely to receive a catchy name like the Zephyr, or attract even a fraction of the attention as that famous train. Its demonstration and that of the filters — both scheduled for completion around June 2013 — may barely register with the public when they conclude. Yet if they do accomplish their emissions reductions goals, it could signal another dawning of a new, cleaner era for the rail industry.