News Column

BNSF Testing Switch to Natural Gas

March 12, 2013

Brooke Self

BNSF locomotive in California's Mojave Desert. (Ron Rering, Creative Commons)
BNSF locomotive in California's Mojave Desert. (Ron Rering, Creative Commons)

BNSF Railway Co. will test liquefied natural gas in a small number of its locomotives later this year.

"The use of liquefied natural gas as an alternative fuel is a potential transformational change for our railroad and for our industry," BNSF chairman and CEO Matthew Rose stated in a news release announcing the tests.

The company is working with a unit of Caterpillar and General Electric to manufacture locomotives that run on both diesel and natural gas, according to the release. The pilot project will allow BNSF to evaluate the technical and economic viability of the use of LNG in its freight service.

The move could also reduce fuel costs and greenhouse emissions. The retail price of a gallon of diesel fuel costs $3.91, while an equivalent amount of energy in natural gas cost 48 cents, according to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal.

However, fuel savings don't reflect the additional costs the company will need to pay to cool the natural gas into a dense liquid, or the investment costs to retrofit even a small number of the company's 6,900 locomotives.

David Rosse, a retired BNSF locomotive fireman and engineer of 44 years from Barstow, said he believes the test locomotives will probably run through Barstow. He thinks the switch to liquefied natural gas would be inefficient based on observations he has made of LNG-fueled buses.

However, he said he doesn't know the exact details of the company's plans.

"With LNG you lose power and mileage," he said. "That's just the way it burns."

Rosse said LNG is also "very flammable." He said he thinks a switch to waste vegetable oil -- used by the Grand Canyon Railway Company -- would be smarter.

"Vegetable oil burns clean; and the firebox and fuels are all clean. You won't get soot and stuff in the engine," he said.

According to Rosse, the BNSF's new plans make sense given the Environmental Protection Agency's recent tightening of air pollution and emissions regulations.

The BNSF railway network is one of the leading freight carriers in the country, spanning 32,500 miles in 28 states and two Canadian provinces, according to the company's website.

Lena Kent, a BNSF spokeswoman, said testing locations have not been determined and the company is still working through technical and regulatory issues.

Source: (c)2013 Daily Press (Victorville, Calif.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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