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BNSF Railway and Vehicle Projects Develop Experimental Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Switch Locomotive; Locomotive-to-Grid Application Explored

Drawing of the fuel-cell hybrid locomotive. Click to enlarge.

BNSF Railway Company and Vehicle Projects LLC, a developer of large fuel-cell vehicles such as mine loaders and mine locomotives, are leading a project consortium to develop an experimental hydrogen fuel-cell hybrid switch locomotive.

The vehicle platform is based on the Green Goat diesel-battery hybrid switcher, and the powerplant and hydrogen storage are based on the Citaro hydrogen fuel-cell transit bus (earlier post). The goal of the project is to demonstrate reduced air and noise pollution in urban rail applications, including yard switching; and to demonstrate the fuel-cell switchers for use as a mobile backup power source (“locomotive-to-grid”, or “power-to-grid”) for military bases and civilian disaster relief efforts.

Field testing is scheduled to begin later this year, with the LA Basin serving as the location for reduced emissions testing and Hill AFB in Utah serving as the location for the backup power application.

As a nation, two widely-accepted issues are global climate change and energy insecurity, which have a common factor—oil. The world burns millions of barrels of oil for energy, and the waste carbon is then emitted to the atmosphere. Because they don't rely on oil as a fuel source, fuel cells solve these two issues. Along with our principal partners, BNSF and the US Army, we at Vehicle Projects are developing proof-of-concept hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that are leading the way to this new technology.

—Arnold Miller, president, Vehicle Projects LLC
Yard switcher duty cycle. Click to enlarge.

The project team is replacing the 200kW diesel prime mover in the Green Goat switcher with a 250kW fuel cell powerplant—based on the powerplant of the Citaro bus—comprising two 125 kW modules. The auxiliary lead-acid traction battery allows transients in excess of 1 MW. The electrically driven rear traction-motor cooling fan and brake air compressor of the Green Goat will remain in place beside the prime mover.

For the power-to-grid application, an off-board power converter will convert the 600-850 VDC output of the fuel cell powerplant to the three-phase AC power of the military-base grid. The hybrid locomotive can provide 250 kW of power on a continuous basis but can provide power surges in excess of 1 MW. Its low acoustic noise and vibration are essential features of its practicality in power-to-grid applications.

Fourteen carbon-fiber composite tanks, located above the traction battery, store a total of 70 kg of compressed hydrogen at 350 bar. Vehicle Projects conducted a safety analysis showing that compressed hydrogen on the roof is essentially as safe as reversible metal-hydride storage in the undercarriage bay (i.e., replacing the diesel fuel tank); the high weight of metal-hydride storage precludes the roof location.

Locomotives require a fixed operating weight. Because the combined weights of the fuel cell powerplant and carbon-fiber hydrogen storage system are substantially lighter than the diesel genset and diesel fuel tank they replace, a steel-plate ballast of approximately 1.0 m3 volume will be placed in the undercarriage bay.

The operating time of the fuel cell-hybrid switcher between refueling operations depends on the duty cycle. Under the most demanding duty cycles, one could expect an operating interval as short as one day, i.e., refueling on a daily basis; in less demanding yards, the interval may be 3-5 days. A major factor in the operating interval is the amount of idle time in the duty cycle.

Project Consortium Members
American Superconductor (pending) Power electronics
Ballard Power Systems Fuel cell stack modules
BNSF Railway Company Industry funding; fabrication; vehicle integration; testing; yard demo
Defense Gen. & Rail Equipment Center (DGRC) Advising on military applications; power-to-grid demonstration
Dynetek Industries Hydrogen storage
RailPower Hybrid Technologies Manufacture of Green Goat Platform
Transportation Technologies Center, Inc. Railyway safety regulations
University of Nevada-Reno Refueling systems design
US Army (NAC) Project oversight
Vehicle Projects LLC Engineering design; project management
Washington Safety Management Solutions Safety Analysis



Rafael Seidl

So what's wrong with running on (compressed/adsorbed/liquefied) natural gas for this application? Or indeed, a diesel running on ULSD with a DPF and SCR?

I suspect all of the contributors are receiving R&D pork from Washington D.C. or Washington State. No sane businessman would invest his or his private investors' money into running a locomotive on hydrogen.


I am also guessing that they get some R&D pork.

They could just electrify the railroad with overhead lines and eliminate the need for any R&D. They could even take a junket to Europe where they can see how it works in practice so they don't need to reinvent anything.

Harvey D


Railroad operations must be cleaned up too.

Getting rid of polluting noisy large diesels is more than welcomed.

Direct electrification would be a worthy alternative but would require a multitude of overhead wires throughout the switching yards. Doable but costly.

For long distance applications, fuel cells (with hydrogene refill stations every 800+ Km) may be just as economical as direct electrification, i.e without the overhead cables. Locomotives can carry a lot of hydrogene on board.

fred schumacher

This is small potatoes stuff. For Class A freight you need 4 megawatt engines and a lot of fuel. Hydrogen fuel cells are efficient, but the hydrogen fuel system is not.

The simple solution is mains electric power. Europe has 100,000 miles of electrified rail, more than all the rail mileage in the U.S.

All linear transport should be mains electric, including city buses. They would be quieter and smoother. Creating one-way streets where the buses run a dedicated lane next to the berm would increase ridership. No weaving in and out of traffic -- low cost light rail.

On the prairies, the railroads could put up wind generators on their right of way to feed into their own grid and the national grid. Railroads are already electric, it's just that they take their generators and fuel with them. Existing locos could be retrofitted. Just pull the engines and fuel tanks and replace them with ballast.

Harvey D


Europe (rightfully) electrified their railroads many years ago. They more or less went from steam to electric locomotives.

Thanks to cheap oil, North America replaced steam locomotives with diesel-electric units and electric city buses + trams with dirty noisy diesel city buses.

Having taken the wrong decision about 5 to 6 decades ago, N-A will have to spend $$ billions to re-convert to electricity.

We are very smart....

Stan Peterson

Electrification of the rail fleet is proceeding. FC locomotives make sense when the cost is not a problem and th power requirements are high and space is not a premium.

FC locomotives make sense for switchers, as do Diesel electric hybrids for long distance locomotives, as soon as they are cleaned up with the equivalent of of T2 B5 emissions equipment.

Electrifying the US rail lines with caternary will never occur as the hauls are so long, but some lines like the Eastern corridor might make sense.


I am extremely weary of Rail Power working on this project. The company is a mess with having to recall defective locomotives, and slow production rates. The only thing keeping that company afloat is a $35 million investment by the Ontario's Teachers Pension Plan. I am a huge supporter of greener locomotives....but the commercialization aspect must be handled by a more competent company! Hopefully, with the addition of multiple partners this particular project will go off without any problems.

Stan Peterson

@ Harvey D,

Catenary electric makes sense when the distances are not too great; otherwise all you do is waste the electricity in heating the catenary wires with resistance losses. It is not just a short sighted choice of diesel.

But the diesel electric locomotives are very efficient compared to long haul trucks. But they can be improved with hybridization to allow downsizing of the diesel engines while still maintaining max output. This can be accomplished by using both diesel and battery to provide maximum demand power. The diesels obviously can be cleaned up. And they are not as of now.


God I love you guys...

They arnt interested in the train at all its just a cheap off the shelf platform to test the real device. A portable long lasting 250 kw SILENT powerplant.. small enough almost to fit in a tank. All they need now is the absornative h2 tank and boom they have thier goalet WAAAY back in the 80s of a compact 250 kw long operating silent powerplant.

After that comes a bigger 1.5 mw or so unit and then finaly a 3.75 mw fully electric tank with yes a fricken laser cannon.

Gymvee and other moting options also will be done im sure.

If along the way peaceful uses pop up like this... fine by them.

Catenary electric makes sense when the distances are not too great; otherwise all you do is waste the electricity in heating the catenary wires with resistance losses.
Stan, there is a concept I would like to show to you.  It is the local substation, which allows the long-distance electric transmission to be done at much higher voltage and low losses.  It may surprise you to learn that this works just as well for electrified rail as it does for electrified cities!

The hydrogen will likely be produced by reforming natural gas, so it doesn't solve energy-security problems.
In a disaster you want power and so energy, with less consideration for noise and pollution than normal. Hydrogen loses to diesel in both its lack of existing infrastructure and the difficulty in transporting large amounts of it.
I'd like to approaches like this pushed off the Green movement band wagon.

Mark A

Is the 100,000 miles of electrified European rail lines overhead?? Do European railways also deal with containerized cargo, double stacked, as much of the freight here in the US does? I am asking because I dont know. I do not think overhead wires would work with containerized double stacked cars, as the stacked containers are considerably higher than the traction engine.

But I think the main jist of this story is replacing railyard switching traction engines, which may never travel more than a mile from any one point in the switch yard,with this "powerplant idea" to eliminate a constant source of pollution. And to also create a mobile "power plant" to provide electricity in an emergency. Low sulfer diesel is an improvement, but doesnt eliminate diesel pollution and consumption.

Any fuel cell power idea put into practice anywhere, provides an invaluable source of "real world" data into creating more and better fuel cells. Sort of a win-win situation for all of us I would think.


Didn't see too many of those near the rail line, riding Amtrak, from Chicago to Seattle.

Maybe we can electrify _parts_ of the system east of the Mississippi.

>the local substation, which allows the long-distance electric transmission to be done at much higher voltage and low losses.


Electrification of part of the line becomes a bit of a nuisance as you have to stop and change engines. Years ago I rode Amtrak from Boston to Baltimore, and back then everything north of New Haven was still diesel, and everything south of that was electric Thus we had to stop for a couple of minutes to change engines.

Although I suppose you could have a sort of mixed engine with both diesel and a pantograph, but in reality such a locomotive would be more expensive than a straight electric.


Actualy railways did look at atrining lines along the routes... but maintenance was an impossible task.

Its also not all that efficient as most of the power vleeds away from line losses and to heat the lines in winter to prevet icing. H2 while somewhat more energy intensive doesnt need local power stations nor does it need a massive army of maintenance crews.

And of course railways can always bring in the fuel by rail:)

But realy thats all a sideshow to the main show.. a portanle compact powerplant capable of powering the militarues anti missle anti projectile laser thingy.

Also of note the entire system was so lite they had to add a cubic meter of steel.. 15 tons to make up the lost weight.

Max Reid

Its true that electrified railways cannot handle stacked double container wagons.

But they can convert from Diesel to Natgas and already 7.5 million vehicles the World over use that fuel, also some LNG tanker ships use Natgas as the fuel.
If the Hydrogen technology matures, we can switch over to it later.

Of late, the Bio-Natgas is supplied to homes thru pipelines.

1 good thing is that Railways in North America has almost recovered from near death and many cities are considering LRT as well.

Rafael Seidl

Gents, a switch locomotive is one used to shunt freight wagons around a yard, assembling and disassembling trains as needed. You could do this electrically, but only if you segregate that segment of the grid from the main line, otherwise the power spikes either way will play havoc with the system.

It's a lot cheaper to deploy ICE-based locomotives, typically diesels running on sulfur-laden off-road dross but that causes emissions problems. Let's focus on the specific application and not worry about the entire US rail network plus buses in this thread.

Stan Peterson

@ Rafael,

Yes the FC locomotives are rail yard switchers. Since these switch yards frequently occur in cities the pressure exist to clean up the local rail locomotives of which the switchers are the most common, since air quality attainment is a city problem.

The CARB has tried to address this be seeking a new generation of yard switchers based on clean diesel technology, (but not quite T2B5).

It is a manifestation that the primary producers of pollution have been reduced to next to nothing. So secondary, tertiary, and even smaller sources of pollution are now being addressed.

I speculated in a post not long ago that Fuel Cells would most likely enter the market at the high power high cost, end of the spectrum. I even suggested a Fuel Cell Locomotive. It turns out that such a yard dog was being designed, even then.

Overall I suspect that a T2B5 diesel yardog will prove to be better, but "let a thousand flowers bloom" such is capitalism in action, aka competition. May the best approach win.


Hi Rafael,

there are quite a few electric switcher locomotives in use in europe (ie. 1063, 1163, 1064) with continous power ratings in the 1.5 MW range. With modern PFC-like semiconductor power rectification, the disturbances in the grid are neglegible; also, rail yards typically feature individual supply rails per track and have their own substation.

@Mark A.:

The rail gauge in europe is the same as in the US with 1435 mm. However, the loading gauge, especially on long distance tracks in the western part of the US, allows for over 6,1 m height, compared with 4,1 m in the EU. Thus double-stacked TEU-containers are not possible here (not only due to the electrificiation, but also due to many tunnels, bridge heights etc.

In any case, the typical long-haul US engine is a series-diesel/electric, lacking any means to store regenerated power. Instead, huge cooling fans can dissipate as much as 3-4 MW of the generated power during braking. I would think, that at least a partial electrification (ie. with a 3rd rail) on steep grades would be extremely beneficial for UP and nearby population. Instead of wasting 4times 3MW (typically, a 3rd or even 4th engine is coupled in order to climb the grade), and further heating the hot southern states air, the generated electricity could be sent into the grid (or at least some kind of stationary "external" power storage, like a flywheel or pumped-storage hydroelectric power plant nearby) and instead of running the diesels at peak power climbing up, that energy could be consumed off the grid / storage.

With 3-8 trains, each wasting 30-50 MWh daily (!) on a typical grade, that would save some 1 to 3 million gallons, 20000 to 100000 barrels a year per grade (mountain pass)...

Just some numbers to think about the wasteful way of life the US currently lives... (Oil needs to get scarcer and much more costly still - 200-300 USD/bar, to feel the pressure).


Lets be realistic on overhead eletrification. It makes a ton of sense in urban, suburban, even constant hundreds of miles(s/b kilometer) runs. But its going to take some doing to get from say LA to Denver to Chicago to NY. Hybrid locomotives and help on the up-slopes should be priorities.


Alan over at The Oil Drum has noted the real problem with rail electrification:  it involves improvement of the infrastructure, which increases property taxes.  The Interstates don't pay property taxes, so railways should probably be exempted to level the playing field.

Alan has a map of rail electrification projects which are on the drawing board.  They include runs from Los Angeles through Texas, IIRC.  Pretty much the whole nation was wired by the REA; it's time to use that wiring to eliminate the rail system's dependence on petroleum.


I had the same idea, wherein in Locomotives also regenerative braking could be used and the electricity generated would be given to grid.

The Betuweroute is electrified and is build to handle double-stacked TEU-containers so technically it is possible

Bob Battersby

Long distance electrification is the only choice you in the US may soon have: You've been there before with the Milwaukee Road. A diesel is an electric loco with it's power station on board. You list the disadvantage of electrification as the "costly" overhead: Think of the catenary as you do the track. Electrification has never been cheaper, especially with 50kV, and auto-transformers. As far as double stacking containers is concerned, just have the contact wire higher to suit the loading gauge. AC supply means energy savings can be made due to braking locomotives regenerating into the supply: You've done that before in the US: saw a photo of a substation where the rotary converters were feeding power from a loco back into the grid. Plus electric railways are penalised by Government by property tax being levied on them: A sure fire way to keep railways low grade. Innovation is not needed: Just an open mind and the absence of petrochemical industry interests.


If memory serves, correct me if I am wrong, there were diesel locomotives built that could run on both electrification and diesel. I am thinking of the diesel locomotives that had third-rail contacts attached to the trucks (wheel frames) of the locomotives; and could seamlessly go from diesel to electrification and back.

Also, has any one considered running the long haul trains on third-rail? This would do away with a lot of expenses for catenary wires and towers. It would mean that there would not be any interference with double-stack container cargo. Also, no modifications to existing tunnel heights or any other overhead structures would have to be done; resulting in substantial installation savings. Also, the maintenance costs would be reduced by doing away with the catenary equipment.

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