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Ballard to power Sierra Northern Railway hydrogen-fuel-cell switching locomotive in California

Ballard Power Systems will provide fuel cell modules to Sierra Northern Railway—the freight division of privately-owned Sierra Energy Corporation, operating in Northern California—to power a zero-emission switching locomotive. A purchase order for the fuel cell modules is expected to be issued by Sierra by mid-year 2021. The pilot program will be partially funded by a $4-million award from the California Energy Commission. (Earlier post.)

Sierra plans to retire a diesel locomotive and replace it with a zero-emission switching locomotive powered a 200 kW Ballard FCmove-HD fuel cell system and involving the integration of hydrogen storage together with advanced battery and systems control technologies. Ballard plans to deliver FCmove-HD fuel cell modules to Sierra by 2022, and Sierra intends to put the locomotive into service in 2023.


The new hydrogen-fueled switching locomotive will displace the need for conventional diesel fuel and will facilitate the improvement of local air quality as well as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, noise and odor. The program will establish a platform for widespread deployment in California, where more than 260 switching locomotives and up to 500 intrastate locomotives are currently in service.

Ballard will participate in the program with a multi-company team and will provide applications engineering and field support throughout a 6-month demonstration period. The switching locomotive will be refueled at a new hydrogen station to be constructed by Royal Dutch Shell plc.

Short-line and switching locomotives account for a significant share of the total locomotive energy use within the State of California, making short-line operation an excellent testbed for the demonstration of zero-emission technology. Most switching locomotives in California use an average of 50,000 gallons of diesel per year, leading to a potential reduction of more than 12-million gallons of diesel annually–approximately equivalent to the fuel used by 20,000 light-duty vehicles.



If I was involved in the design, I would probably add a little more battery and get rid of the fuel cell and the hydrogen tanks. With the 500 kW-hr battery alone, the locomotive would probably operate 3 to 4 hours. Then I would suggest adding a second locomotive with just batteries and traction motors but no cab. It is common for railroads to use what is call a slug which is a locomotive with just traction motors and an added mass but without a diesel engine or generator to add tractive force at lower speeds. The battery slug would both add range and tractive force. A second battery slug could be charging while the other battery slug is working to allow continuous operation. This would eliminate the cost of the fuel cells and hydrogen and the problems of dealing with hydrogen while doubling the energy efficiency.


Less diesel fumes is better



> With the 500 kW-hr battery alone, the locomotive would probably operate 3 to 4 hours

No. It wouldn't.

A 500kWh is barely enough to make a 40t truck (class 8 semi) go ~300 km (200 miles). Have a look at the existing Freightliner eCascadia or Volvo FM electric. They both use batteries with +500kWh and can only go <250 miles. The Tesla Semi will be in the same ballpark.

500kWh is not nearly enough to operate a locomotive that's supposed push wagons around all day.


If it is just around the rail yard I’d dispense with most of the batteries and use a catenary.



My estimate was based on the size of the fuel cell (200 kW) which would have to at least supply the average required power. Also, an earlier diesel hybrid locomotive for the same service had a 130 hp (97 kW) diesel but was capable 1500 kW peak power. While high peak power is needed to accelerate a long string of freight cars, the average required power for switching or shunting is relatively low.


Over-the-road trucks are typically operated at close to full power much of the time.


At low speeds, a simple sagging trolley line would work but even these were found to be too maintenance intensive to be practical compared to operating diesel locomotives.

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