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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
While the Class Is continue to explore the potential of developing liquefied natural gas (LNG)-powered locomotives, a Chicago-area short line is preparing to convert two-thirds of its motive-power fleet to run on compressed natural gas (CNG).
Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co. (IHB) plans to convert 31 of its 46 diesel-powered locomotives to adopt CNG. The largest U.S. switching railroad — which operates 54 miles of mainline circling Chicago from near O'Hare International Airport to northwest Indiana — obtained a $34.25 million grant from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning in late 2013 to cover 65 percent of the conversion's cost.
The diesel engines on each locomotive will be altered to operate solely on CNG, helping to reduce particulate matter (PM) emissions by 97 percent and nitrogen oxides emissions by 87 percent compared with current air emission levels, says Michael Nicoletti, IHB's director of purchasing and project executive. The railroad also expects to reduce its annual diesel consumption by about 1 million gallons.
The voluntary conversion will make IHB the first North American railroad to convert a significant portion of its locomotive fleet to operate on natural gas, says Michael Nicoletti, IHB's director of purchasing and project executive.
For the past few years, IHB managers have analyzed the fleet to determine ways to modernize it. The locomotives were built in 1965 and "not much has changed on them since," says Nicoletti.
Natural gas prices are on the decline and an effort already was under way to make the railroad's motive power more environmentally friendly — IHB acquired eight switchers over the past three years that meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) more stringent Tier 3 emission standard.
So, "natural gas seemed like the logical choice," says Nicoletti.
The Tier 3 diesel engines don't feature PM filters. Converting 70 percent of IHB's fleet to operate on CNG will reduce PM emissions considerably, says Nicoletti.
"We can move the needle significantly with natural gas," he says.
The greater Chicago area is known for a high concentration of air pollution that affects people who are vulnerable to or living with asthma and other lung diseases.
The conversion will help improve air quality near IHB's operations for those people, says Nicoletti, himself an asthma sufferer.
IHB considered LNG as a fuel source but opted to implement CNG because there is ample pipeline capacity in the area.
"A [CNG] gas line is located within a couple hundred feet of us," says Nicoletti.
The local grant for the conversion project was made possible by the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) fund.
The CMAQ program is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and grants are based on EPA air quality rankings. A policy committee voted in favor of IHB's CMAQ funding application in October 2013. The railroad will cover 35 percent of the project's cost.
IHB managers hope to soon negotiate contract language for a request for proposals (RFP) with the Illinois Department of Transportation. The railroad then could issue the RFP to seek a vendor for the conversion, perhaps by mid-March, says Nicoletti.
"We believe we can get the first converted locomotive on our property late in the first quarter or in the second quarter of 2015," he says.
It will take about four years to complete the conversion. In the meantime, IHB plans to finish some necessary infrastructure upgrades, such as a compressor station, says Nicoletti.