August 2, 2021. Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) will be working together with Sierra Northern Railway, Gas Technology Institute (GTI), and other technical experts to develop and test a zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell engine for a switcher locomotive. Switcher locomotives are a type of engine for trains that carry goods from ports to nearby warehouses. Creating a fuel cell engine for these trains would potentially eliminate their emissions and provide a much-needed reduction in air pollution from the railways that serve California’s warehouses and ports. The project was selected for funding by the California Energy Commission, which awarded Sierra Northern Railway and GTI nearly $4 million to fund the design and demonstration of the train in Sacramento, with the goal of creating a clean alternative to diesel locomotives. SoCalGas is committing another $500,000 to advance the research.

“We believe hydrogen fuel cell-powered locomotives can play a significant role in reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the railways that serve California’s ports and warehouses,” said Neil Navin, SoCalGas Vice President of Clean Energy Innovations. “This research is just part of our efforts to lead the transition to clean fuels in California and it supports our commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in our operations and delivery of energy by 2045.”

The issue of warehouse-related air pollution received heightened attention earlier this month when the air quality regulators at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) adopted a rule to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) and diesel particulate matter emissions from diesel trucks serving distribution centers. In order to comply with this new rule, warehouses larger than 100,000 square feet can choose to directly reduce emissions from their operations or pay a mitigation fee to fund technologies and projects that reduce air pollution in nearby communities.

Sierra Northern Railway proposes to retire a high-emission Tier 0 diesel locomotive engine and replace it with an engine that will integrate a hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen storage tank with advanced battery and systems control technologies. Upon completion, the new zero-emissions switcher locomotive will displace up to 10,000 gallons of conventional diesel fuel per year by using hydrogen fuel, providing the capacity to eliminate more than 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide—more than that produced by driving a car 250,000 miles. In addition to helping improve air quality and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the hydrogen fuel cell locomotive technology will eliminate the noise and odor associated with diesel engines.

Project demonstrations will take place on Sierra Northern Railway’s short-line operations, which serve the railyard and seaport in West Sacramento. Sierra Northern Railway and GTI will partner with an experienced team of rail and hydrogen industry experts to build and test the train engine. These experts include Ballard Power Systems, Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, Railpower Tech LLC, OptiFuel Systems LLC, Valley Vision, Velocity Strategies, and Frontier Energy.