After one year, CN's renewable fuel tests rate a high grade

The Class I is testing several high-level renewable fuels in locomotive operations along with partners Progress Rail and Chevron Renewable Energy Group. CN

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor 

So far, so good. CN recently marked a successful first year of testing several renewable biofuel blends. 

The Class I is analyzing high-level renewable fuels in locomotive operations through a partnership with Progress Rail and Chevron Renewable Energy Group (REG). The fuels typically are produced from renewable resources, such as vegetable oil, hydrogen or carbon dioxide and water. 

CN is conducting trials and qualifications of up to 100% renewable fuels as an additional step toward further reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and meeting aggressive science-based emission targets by 2030. The Class I also strives to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Through the ongoing pilot project, CN is evaluating the feasibility, long-term durability and operational impacts of employing biofuels, including usage in cold weather. After the pilot is completed, any necessary modifications would be carried out to fully leverage renewable fuels over the next decade.  

During the past year, CN has tested different blends of biodiesel and renewable diesel in Pennsylvania on the Bessemer and Lake Erie portion of its network. The pilot is proving successful by not impacting traffic for customers, even in frigid temperatures, CN officials said in an online post. 

Fuel consumption The railroad consumes about 15% less fuel per gross ton mile than the rail industry average, CN data shows. CN

For the remainder of 2023 and into 2024, the Class I and its partners plan to closely monitor locomotive impacts and compile test results to better understand the implications of using biofuels network-wide. The collaborative effort is key to proving the viability of renewable fuels, CN officials say. 

“The partnership between [a railroad], a locomotive manufacturer and a biofuel producer is a clear signal that the rail industry is working together to lower the carbon intensity of our supply chain,” said CN Senior Director of Sustainability François Belanger.

Progress Rail was the first major locomotive manufacturer to approve up to 20% biodiesel across an existing fleet. That represents the highest usage of biodiesel blends fleet-wide in global revenue service, said Progress Rail Senior Vice President Paul Denton. 

The pilot project promises an immediate, cost-effective solution to help support CN’s sustainability goals, he said. 

“We look forward to working together on the next generation of alternative fuels,” Denton added. 

Chevron REG VP of Sales Todd Ellis believes the CN pilot can help ease some rail industry concerns about employing renewable fuels. 

“The testing … is furthering the conviction of the role of biofuels as an immediate lower-carbon solution that can be implemented with minimal impact to infrastructure or operations,” he said. 

Successfully deploying renewable fuels hinges on the availability of innovative technologies and a sufficient volume of cost-competitive biofuels in the years to come, according to CN.  

“The extent of our ability to fully deploy and implement new technologies, as well as to obtain and use sufficient volumes of sustainable renewable fuels, will require collaboration between locomotive manufacturers and fuel producers,” CN officials said in a sustainability report issued last year. 

Currently, the railroad consumes about 15% less fuel per gross ton mile than the rail industry average, CN data shows. Since 1993, the Class I has reduced locomotive GHG intensity by more than 40%. 

“We are committed to continue adapting our business to changing climate conditions, to help our customers reduce the environmental impact of their transportation activities and to promote sustainability in the rail industry,” CN officials said. “We are pleased with the progress of our biofuel testing program to date and look forward to continuing our lower-carbon journey.”