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Rail News Home Mechanical

December 2008

Rail News: Mechanical

Higher Fuel Costs, Tighter Emission Standards Prompt Railroads to Update Decades Old Locomotives


By Walter Weart 

The song “Everything Old is New Again” best describes railroads’ push to breathe new life into outdated locomotives. Hundreds of decades-old units are being transformed into modern and more efficient motive power through remanufacturing efforts or overhauls.

Railroads are turning to locomotive shops to remanufacture units, which can improve performance and extend service life by 15 to 20 years, says Jim Wurtz, vice president of marketing and sales for National Railway Equipment Co. (NREC), which builds and remanufactures locomotives. The head-to-toe makeovers call for stripping all components and subsystems, rewiring the unit, making structural repairs and upgrading the cab.

“When we remanufacture a locomotive, we disassemble it to the frame,” says Wurtz.

During the remanufacturing process, NREC might install its NFORCE module — which features excitation and transition control, traction motor management and diagnostic tools — to improve a locomotive’s reliability and adhesion, or replace the brake system with a modern electronic one, he says.

Railroads also are contracting shops to overhaul locomotives by rebuilding the engine or support systems and performing limited carbody, wiring, cab and aesthetic work. Overhauls can extend a locomotive’s service life by seven to nine years, says Wurtz.

A number of shops are busy remanufacturing or overhauling locomotives because Class Is, regionals and short lines need to turn old units into more environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient motive power to cut operating costs and meet federal air quality standards.

“Our customers are not only seeking better fuel economy, they also want lower emissions,” says Larry Conrad, VP of operations for locomotive service provider Brookville Equipment Corp.

To meet demands, shops need to offer a range of renewal options, and each option entails different work, says Gary Eelman, VP of sales and marketing, and customer service for MotivePower Inc.

Overhauls vary by a railroad’s individual requirements while the remanufacturing process might include the installation of the Q-Tron microprocessor system, which includes components to control wheel slip and improve adhesion, or automatically shut down and restart the engine, he says.

But locomotive shops aren’t just trying to satisfy railroads’ demands. They need to fill industrial customers’ motive power renewal needs, too.

More Than One Size to Fit All

RELCO Locomotives Inc. can fulfill custom requirements for industrial clients who want improved performance from their switchers, says Doug Bachmann, VP of RELCO, which rebuilds and repairs locomotives for Class Is, and overhauls and upgrades locomotives for short-line holding companies and industrial clients.

“Some of what we are seeing is preparing two or three locomotives at a time to specifications tailored to unique assignments based on the customer’s needs,” he says.

Locomotive shop managers also are noticing a change in the type of motive power they’re servicing. Demand for older SW and GP series units has waned, while interest in more environmentally friendly and productive generator-set (GenSet) units — which offer a one-for-two replacement ratio for older locomotives — has increased, says NREC’s Wurtz.

“The demand for the older four- and six-axle locomotives is down and likely will not come back because of the downturn in the economy and a move towards GenSets,” he says.

Nonetheless, MotivePower is rebuilding old GP series units for Kansas City Southern Railway Co., says Eelman. A group of GP38-2s and GP40-2s are being converted into GP-22 ECO locomotives, which will be repowered with modern eight-cylinder engines and equipped with WABCO fast-brake systems, he says.

The group includes five GP-22s, one GP-22 “mother” unit, and four “mother and mate” sets. Each set will use the mother unit’s engine for power, which will reduce fuel consumption. Because they’ll be equipped with Electro-Motive Diesel Inc.’s 710-ECO™ Repower power plant, the mother and mate sets also will cut emissions, says Eelman.

The 710-ECO power plant is designed to exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Tier 2 emission requirements, cut fuel usage up to 25 percent and use 50 percent less lube oil. The locomotives MotivePower retrofits will produce up to 70 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, making the units eligible for state and federal clean-air project funding, says Eelman.

MotivePower also recently rebuilt five GP04FH-2s for New Jersey Transit. The locomotives originally were built in the mid-1960s for the Central Railroad of New Jersey for commuter-rail service and were remanufactured in the late 1980s. Considered “clean-diesel” switchers and designated as MP20B-3s, the locomotives feature Caterpillar diesel engines and meet the EPA’s Tier 2 standards, says Eelman.

Overhauling Overhauls

Meanwhile, Alstom has taken a different approach to meeting customers’ locomotive renewal needs by implementing “fragmented overhauls.”

In 2003, the company began to provide “reliability centered maintenance” for 434 BNSF Railway Co. SD70MACs at the Class I’s Alliance, Neb., facility, says Jim Lindsay Alstom’s VP and customer director for U.S. and Canadian railroads.

The concept calls for gathering and using statistical data to identify components that are reaching the end of their lives, and changing out the components prior to failure. Alstom also employs the concept to maintain locomotives for Mexican customers, including Kansas City Southern de México S.A. de C.V., Ferrocarril Mexicana S.A. de C.V., Ferrosur S.A. de C.V. and Ferrovalle.

“We track the age and potential life spans and break the overhaul in ‘pieces’ rather than tear the entire locomotive down, as would be done in a more conventional program,” says Lindsay, adding that Alstom focuses on “high value” and critical components, such as the prime mover and main generator.

Health Conscious

The company also has developed physical signals, acoustic, thermal and vibration techniques to determine component health. In cooperation with BNSF, Alstom in 2005 started collecting data and developing the condition-based maintenance center to further refine the concept.

“Since then, we have developed portable tools that can be used at fuel ramps to have additional monitoring opportunities,” says Lindsay. “We think that the increased level of wireless communications with the locomotives will create further data collection opportunities.”

Locomotive shops are trying to capitalize on their revamped service offerings and high demand to keep business flowing. A number of shops have a backlog through year’s end and into early 2009. However, business levels might take a turn for the worse after backlogs are worked off.

“We think the credit crisis will have some impact on our business,” says NREC’s Wurtz. “Another factor is cost as remanufacturing could reach between 75 percent and 85 percent of the price of a new Genset.”

Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.


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