Railroad steam locomotives from the mid-1950s seemingly disappeared overnight, replaced by diesel electric technology that was more efficient. These steam locomotives can now only be found at demonstrations in museums, a testament to the power of technological revolution.
Earlier this year, BNSF Railway announced it would be testing natural gas powered locomotives. This is a big development since BNSF is among the largest consumers of diesel fuel in the nation. In the 1950s, one company used natural gas turbine railroad locomotives, so the idea is not new or representative of a radical deployment of new technology.
What is interesting is that the BNSF announcement said that the substitution of natural gas for diesel could have a dramatic impact on railroad fuel costs and make rail more competitive with other modes of transportation, specifically barges. Of course, substantial new capital investments would be required to convert locomotives and fuel depots.
This kind of energy displacement is occurring not only domestically but also worldwide. A few years ago Russia was literally squeezing some eastern European countries over higher prices for natural gas exports. Now these same countries with access to cheaper gas have turned the tables on Russia and have squeezed lower prices for their imports.
This kind of energy substitution is not likely to be lost on truck or barge operators. If the railroad’s substitution of natural gas for diesel is technically, operationally and economically attractive, you can expect that this will spread quickly to other transport modes that rely on diesel fuel.
All of this suggests that the domestic energy revolution beginning with natural gas and extending to crude oil is far from over in terms of scale and scope of applications. In slightly more than 60 years, domestic transport sector energy use shifted from coal and oil to diesel. Now, perhaps it will ultimately shift to natural gas.
There may be some radical changes looming in domestic transport energy consumption, particularly if the diesel engine technology transport sector can efficiently shift to natural gas. It’s already happening with some offshore service vessels.
Towboats may be next.