— by Kathy Bergstrom
U.S. locomotive order activity has not returned to pre-recession levels, but there are some market bright spots — including international orders and the continuing popularity of more fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly generator-set (GenSet) locomotives, power manufacturers and market observers say.
"It looks like GenSet locomotives are here to stay, and that may be one part of the market that is growing a little bit faster than some other parts," says Jim Husband, president of RailSolutions Inc., a rail equipment financing consultant.
In the meantime, incremental advances in technology continue as builders develop units that comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Tier 4 emission standard, which is set to take effect in 2015.
But overall, power orders from U.S. railroads have been down the past few years. From the late 1990s to the late 2000s, about 900 new locomotives were being built annually, Husband said. During the past four years, that number has dwindled to perhaps fewer than 300 per year, he adds.
As a result, the two largest U.S. locomotive manufacturers — GE Transportation and Electro-Motive Diesel Inc. (EMD) — have "probably been more active in international markets over the last two or three years than they have in the domestic market, not that they haven't continued to spend money on research and development, and developing new models," Husband says.
Officials at GE Transportation declined comment for this story, but the company reported third-quarter locomotive orders worth $1.2 billion — an increase of 21 percent compared with the same 2011 period. The increase was driven by locomotive orders from international customers, according to the company's third-quarter earnings release. In January, the company announced it had received an order for 43 locomotives from South Africa's Transnet SOC Ltd. The locomotives are scheduled to be delivered in June 2013.
Meanwhile, EMD officials couldn't be reached for comment. But the builder, which is owned by Caterpillar Inc. subsidiary Progress Rail Services Corp., also has been reporting locomotive activity outside the United States. In January, EMD announced it had delivered 38 new SD70ACe locomotives to Ferrocarril Mexicano S.A. de C.V. in December 2011. Meanwhile, Progress Rail announced a domestic order this past April: four repowered, low-emissions PR30B locomotives for RailAmerica Inc.'s San Joaquin Valley Railroad. And last month, EMD announced the official opening of a locomotive manufacturing facility in Sete Lagoas, Minas Gerais, Brazil — the first EMD locomotive assembly plant to open in Brazil in more than 20 years, according to a prepared statement.
Other builders also have been pretty busy, both overseas and in North America. Wabtec Corp., which owns diesel-electric locomotive builder MotivePower Inc. reported a revenue increase in the third quarter. Sales in Wabtec's freight segment increased by $38.8 million, or 12.3 percent, including $4.9 million from demand for freight original equipment locomotives and aftermarket services for locomotives. Overall, though, 2012 locomotive order activity has been similar to 2011's, said spokesman Tim Wesley said in an email.
Wabtec's 2012 orders include a $45 million contract with Metrolinx, the regional transportation authority for the greater Toronto and Hamilton area in Canada, to repower 11 passenger locomotives with new engines and propulsion systems that meet higher environmental standards. The company expects to begin deliveries in 2014. Originally built by MotivePower five years ago, the locomotives will be repowered with new engines that meet Tier 4 emissions standards. The engines feature technology that can reduce diesel particulate matters by about 85 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by about 75 percent, according to Wabtec.
Another announced order: Wabtec will build 10 locomotives for CFCLA Rail JV Pty. Ltd., a joint venture of CFCL Australia Pty. Ltd. and Marubeni Corp. of Tokyo. The locomotives will be operated in Australia. Wabtec expects to deliver them in 2013.
Also busy in North America is R.J. Corman Railpower, which expects to deliver 22 new, repowered and used locomotives to a range of customers, including Union Pacific Railroad, RailAmerica Inc., Modesto & Empire Traction Co., Terminal Railway-Alabama State Docks, Sierra Northern Railway, and the ports of Montreal and Corpus Christi, a company spokesman said in an email. The delivery total represents an increase from 2011, and Railpower execs expect a similar total in 2013.
Units delivered range from new 2,000-horsepower, six-axle hump locomotives to new 2,000-horsepower, four-axle road and yard switchers to be repowered to 1,400-horsepower, four-axle yard switchers.
Railpower has received some inquiries from potential buyers in Australia and South America, but the requested specifications did not easily integrate with the company's current product line, the spokesman said, adding: "Railpower is continually seeking new opportunities that integrate with our product portfolio and will evaluate each new international opportunity as it arises."
The company also continues to push the product-enhancement envelope. This year, Railpower delivered its first short-nose, AAR S-580 crashworthy compliant, new operator cab to the Port of Montreal. The company also offers a standard AAR S-580 crashworthy compliant cab or a rebuilt cab. "Multiple customers" requested the short-nose cab offering in recent bids, the spokesman said.
Railpower also applied its two GenSet designs, which total 1,400 horsepower, to "un-stretched EMD NW2 and MP15 platforms, proving that Railpower's modular kit designs really can be applied to all the industry's aging fleets," the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the company is in the process of rolling out its Locomotive Information Viewing Environment Portal (L.I.V.E.), which serves as a "one-stop shop for all things Railpower GenSet locomotive related," the spokesman said.
Customers can log on to L.I.V.E. to obtain a manufacturing update before units arrive onsite. Once the units are delivered, customers can remotely access operational data, parts catalogs, documentation, maintenance data and other information.
Railpower's top "new selling feature" is manual or location-based Engine Economizer Mode (EEM), the spokesman added.
With the manual option, locomotive control software can disable one or more GenSets during operation. The feature is controlled through a user interface screen.
In the location-based mode, the locomotive automatically switches to full horsepower in zones such as mainline sidings or ruling grades. Location-based EEM does not require operator intervention.
"Customers who use EEM in their operation experience even greater fuel consumption reduction than with standard GenSet technology," the spokesman said.
But Railpower's "biggest development" is a Tier 4 product the company expects to be available during the second half of 2013, the spokesman said.
"Railpower continues to work with our engine suppliers and customers to ensure this solution meets expectations," the spokesman said, adding that the company expects 2013 order volume to be similar to 2012's.
At Railserve Inc., expectations for order activity remain high. In 2012, demand increased for Railserve's Gen-Set LEAF® (Lower Emissions and Fuel) locomotive. For example: In September, the company announced the delivery of a Single Gen-Set LEAF to Fairmount Minerals at its Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co. facility in Maiden Rock, Wis.
"We've had several of our existing customers that have ordered additional leased Gen-Set locomotives, and we have quite a bit of interest in the market," said TJ Mahoney, program manager for the LEAF Gen-Set. "We have a lot of quotations on the table for consideration, and that number is in the dozens."
Railserve's customers typically are industrial plants with yard switching operations. They either do the switching themselves or hire contractors like Railserve.
The original LEAF offered a single Gen-Set, but Railserve also offers a dual Gen-Set model and had produced three as of this fall — including a unit in use at a Cargill Inc. facility in Eddyville, Iowa.
Dual LEAF offers the same features as the company's single LEAF with the addition of a second Cummins QSX 15 600-horsepower Gen-Set, a larger frame and an increased capacity sand reservoir.
The Dual LEAF is more suitable for facilities that handle more cars, or that have grades or other track conditions that require more power, according to a Railserve press release.
Railserve predicts that orders for LEAF in 2012 will surpass 2011's, in part due to customers' desire to decrease fuel consumption and improve emissions, Mahoney said.
As of late November, sales of the LEAF Gen-Set were nearly two times 2011 sales, and 2013 sales are expected to "at least double" 2012's, Railserve officials said.
The dual Gen-Set technology has "opened up our market to clients that have more demanding need for either horsepower or speed," Mahoney added.
Although it did not obtain freight orders to deliver this year, Brookville Equipment Corp. is building 12 BL36PH commuter locomotives for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority's Tri-Rail system.
One of the passenger locomotives is nearing completion this year and the remainder will be delivered in 2013, said Michael White, marketing manager. The engines meet Tier 3 EPA standards but are Tier 4 ready, which means they can meet Tier 4 standards with the use of an after-exhaust treatment system, he added.
The new locomotive is designed to offer fuel savings, the company said in a press release.
The engine enables an idling locomotive to operate on half of the engine's 20 cylinders to conserve fuel and also has an automatic engine start/stop feature that shuts down the main engine when the locomotive is idle for extended periods, the company said.
On the freight locomotive front, Brookville in February shipped an ultra-low emissions GenSet locomotive to the Central California Traction Co., which is jointly owned by Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway Co., and operates 55 miles of track.
The locomotive represented Brookville's first GenSet locomotive.
"We have seen that there are still a considerable number of proposals and bids for modifications and repowers," White said. "New units obviously are still being sought by the railroads, but I would say that the pace has been slowed somewhat over what we had seen in 2011."
But Brookville is bullish about 2013's prospects. The 2012 presidential election is over, removing some uncertainty; cleaner burning engines are coming on line; and transit projects that have been on the books are finally coming to fruition, White said.
"We just anticipate seeing a higher volume of requests next year," he said. "We have great hopes and expectations for 2013."
— Kathy Bergstrom is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.