Green transportation options growing for rail

Avatar photo
by Emily Atkins

It’s no secret that the transportation sector is a huge emitter of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to the rapid advancement of climate change. In Canada the sector accounts for 27 percent of GHG emissions.

From cargo planes, to container ships, trains and the trucks on our roads, more than 90 percent of the fuel used is carbon-based. Not only is the extraction of petroleum products unsustainable, burning them has an even more immediate impact on our environment.

Climate change related to CO2 emissions is rapidly impacting transportation operations. The flooding in British Columbia last year that wiped out most of the road and rail transport links in the province’s Lower Mainland is just one climate-related example. In the future, ports will be at risk from rising ocean levels, while the potential for further devastating weather events just keeps escalating.

With growing awareness of the problem’s scope comes increasing pressure from regulators, investors and consumers to take action. Transport suppliers in all modes are taking heed. Some actions respond to regulatory changes and global pacts like the Paris Agreement, while others are more directly related to the cost of doing business. When customers and investors start making procurement contingent on the sustainability actions carriers are taking, the stakes are suddenly much higher.

In this four-part feature we look at a sample of sustainability initiatives in the different modes of transport to highlight some of the actions the sector is taking to improve its track record.

CP’s hydrogen locomotive

Rail is developing a hydrogen-powered locomotive. The program involves retrofitting a line-haul locomotive with hydrogen fuel cells and battery technology to drive electric traction motors.

The railway says it embarked on the project because almost the entire freight locomotive fleet in North America – for all railway operators – consists of diesel-powered units, representing the industry’s most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. The company thinks retrofitting diesel locomotives with zero-emission hydrogen fuel cells may be a practical means to decarbonize the freight-rail industry.

The program launched in December 2020, and in 2021 CP announced it was expanding its scope to convert an additional line-haul locomotive and a yard switcher locomotive. This work will refine the process of converting diesel-electric powertrains to hydrogen-electric powertrains on the three categories of locomotive, which represent most locomotives used throughout North America.

CP is using fuel cell modules from Ballard Power Systems. The modules provide a total of 1.2 megawatts of electricity to power the locomotive.

In November 2021 CP received a $15 million grant from Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) to help fund the conversions and add hydrogen production and fueling facilities at CP railyards in Calgary and Edmonton. In Calgary, the fueling facility will include a plant to produce hydrogen from water. This facility will operate on renewable power from solar panels at CP’s headquarters and produce zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The Edmonton facility includes a small-scale steam methane reformation system that will generate hydrogen from Alberta natural gas. It’s being built to accommodate the possible future addition of greenhouse gas capture equipment.

“In expanding this ground-breaking project, CP is demonstrating its commitment to combatting climate change through transformative technology,” said Keith Creel, CP’s president and CEO.

“I am very pleased that ERA selected this program for a grant and I eagerly anticipate seeing a hydrogen-powered locomotive move CP customer freight in the near future.”