CSX will begin a pilot program in 2014 to test the use of liquified natural gas locomotives made by GE's transportation unit, the railroad said Wednesday.
"LNG technology has the potential to offer one of the most significant developments in railroading since the transition from steam to diesel in the 1950s," Chief Operating Officer Oscar Munoz said in a statement.
Class I railroad BNSF earlier this year said it too would test the feasibility of LNG as a fuel for its freight trains.
The impetus for use of LNG in railroading and other transport modes comes from the continued raising of emissions standards by the Environmental Protection Agency because of concerns about the health effects of diesel emissions and global warming, as well as the abundant supply of natural gas in North America that has become available in the past four years by harnessing new drilling technology and techniques. LNG burns cleaner and produces fewer greenhouse gases, although there are concerns about escape of methane at production sites. LNG also is cheaper than diesel fuel, but major investments will be required to build up the necessary fueling infrastructure.
CSX officials said it needs to find out if LNG can be incorporated into its operations economically without degrading safety or service. Switching to LNG as the primary fuel will require LNG tender cars, new locomotives and fueling infrastructure, Louis Renjel, vice president of strategic infrastructure, told reporters following a press event in Washington several weeks ago to trumpet Phase 1 completion of the railroad's National Gateway initiative for enhancing intermodal capacity in the mid-Atlantic region.
Renjel also said more natural gas production facilities need to be built and production capacity for LNG tendering cars is almost non-existent.
"We're cautiously optimistic, but there's a lot of pieces that have to come in place," he said.
Natural gas-fueled locomotives can travel longer distances without refueling stops and could further add to the benefit of intermodal rail over trucking, CSX said. Many large trucking companies, however, are also exploring the use of natural gas tractors and some, like UPS, are already investing in equipment.
GE Transportation said it has been testing low-pressure natural gas technology since the spring and is working closely with CSX and other railroads. GE is retrofitting several of its Evolution Series locomotives with a natural gas retrofit kit that meets the EPA's Tier 3 emission standards. The locomotives will have dual-fuel capability.
CSX said it will develop a test plan and secure regulatory approvals for the LNG locomotives in the coming months.