BNSF Railway later this year will begin testing liquefied natural gas in a small number of locomotives, the company said Wednesday.
The demonstration program aims to determine if the alternative is viable as a power source for long-distance freight moves. Potential benefits include reduced fuel costs and emissions of greenhouse gas and diesel particulates.
Matthew Rose, chairman and chief executive officer of the holding company Burlington Nothern Santa Fe, LLC, said the development of massive new natural gas fields in the United States through new shale-rock extraction methods was a key factor in deciding to pursue LNG to fuel the railroad's locomotives. Natural gas prices have dropped significantly the past two years as supply has increased, while diesel fuel costs almost $4 per gallon. Many trucking companies are also exploring LNG on a limited basis, but adoption is hindered by the lack of a nationwide network of fueling stations.
Rose said a change from diesel to LNG fuel would be "transformational" for the railroad industry.
The Class I railroad said it is working with locomotive manufacturers General Electric and EMD, a unit of Caterpillar, to develop the natural gas engine technology that will be used in the pilot.
The former Burlington Northern, one of the BNSF's predecessors, tested natural gas locomotives in the 1980s and 1990s. BNSF also tested LNG switch locomotives in Los Angeles until they reached they end of their useful life a few years ago.
BNSF, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, said several technological and regulatory challenges still need to be surmounted before LNG can be used in regular service. - Eric Kulisch