March 21, 2018

Turning on the gas: Florida East Coast Railway embraces LNG locomotives

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Florida East Coast Railway has become the first North American railway to adopt liquefied natural gas (LNG) as the fuel for its entire mainline locomotive fleet. William Vantuono outlines the reasons for the switch.

FLORIDA East Coast Railway (FECR) in partnership with the Natural Gas for High Horsepower Summit, officially rolled out its 24-unit liquefied natural gas (LNG) fleet in November 2017, making it the first North American railway to adopt LNG. The fleet consists of 12 pairs of back-to-back GE ES44C4 locomotives with a purpose-built Chart Industries fuel tender in between. FECR, a Class 2 regional railway, is also the first railway in the United States to haul LNG as a commodity, under a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) waiver.

 

“We are proud to be the first North American railroad to operate its entire main line fleet on LNG,” says Mr Fran Chinnici, FECR’s chief operating officer. “We hope that our efforts will help other railroads and industries with this paradigm shift.”

FECR says LNG is a key part of its overall sustainability objective. “Natural gas is abundant, clean burning and economical,” FECR says. “Compared with diesel, it reduces locomotive emissions and helps improve the environmental quality of the railway’s operations.”

FECRFECR has been operating with LNG since late 2015. Raven Transport, a road haulage subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), also uses LNG, having converted 44% of its fleet to run on the fuel. By October 2017, FECR and Raven had completed more than 2300 trips covering more than 1.37 million km while consuming more than 10.2 million litres of LNG.

LNG has been tested as a locomotive fuel for the better part of 25 years and is still under evaluation by several Class 1 railways including BNSF. It works for FECR both as a fuel source and a commodity, for two reasons. First, FECR’s mainline locomotive fleet is captive, operating solely on its Jacksonville - Miami main line, while secondly FECR has several sources of LNG. In addition to purchasing truckloads of the fuel on the open market, FECI’s affiliate New Fortress Energy owns and operates a 378,540-litre-per-day-capacity LNG plant in Hialeah, near Miami.

Reducing natural gas to its liquid form permits cost-effective transport over long distances, and experts say LNG is one of the fastest-growing segments in the energy industry, with a 10-15% projected annual growth rate over the next decade.

The EPA Tier 3-compliant locomotives look no different from standard GE ES44C4s, but their Gevo prime-movers have been retrofitted by GE with its NextFuel low-pressure natural gas kits which enable existing Evolution Series locomotives to run on both diesel fuel and LNG with up to 80% gas substitution, as well as running 100% on diesel if required. GE says using natural gas as a fuel source reduces emissions and potentially reduces fuel costs by 50% while not compromising performance.

The gas substitution method retains diesel for compression ignition purposes. A 100% LNG engine would require a spark ignition, like a petrol engine.

Fuel tender

The purpose-built, 67.86-tonne (fully loaded) fuel tender is what sets these units apart from conventional locomotives. Specially designed and built by Chart Industries, the tender consists of a cryogenic tank permanently mounted in a wagon that looks similar to an intermodal well wagon.

However, the vehicle is designed to withstand a side impact from an articulated lorry without damage. The wagon also has a centre sill which is much larger and heavier than on a well wagon. Underneath, the car body is fully enclosed to protect the tank from being punctured by an errant rail in a derailment. The design was extensively computer-modelled to simulate worse-case side impact and derailment scenarios.

The cryogenic tank is secured to the wagon and protected by a massive steel frame with collision posts. It is really two tanks in one: an inner stainless-steel tank within an outer carbon-steel tank, separated by a layer of thermal insulation. Complex gasification equipment that takes the LNG and transforms it into a gas for the locomotives’ fuel injection system forms a web of valves and pipes. It is a complicated setup - a plumber’s nightmare - but it works well, and safely. Safety features also include valves that snap shut automatically to prevent leakage if the LNG plumbing is damaged.

LNG content is determined by weight, not by volume, hence the weighbridges that are built into each fuelling station. It takes 90 minutes to fill an empty tender. The tender wagon fuels its twin locomotives for up to 1450km of heavy-haul operation running at a maximum speed of 100km/h. For FECR, that’s good for one 1126km round trip between Jacksonville and Miami, including idling time and potential delays, with fuel and time to spare.

FECR, under FRA waiver, is also hauling LNG in ISO containers. The railway currently moves LNG containers from the liquefaction plant in Hialeah to Port Miami and Port Everglades.
In addition, FECR is beginning to explore opportunities to transport LNG as a commodity.

The safety of transporting LNG by rail has, as expected, been questioned. According to the California Energy Commission (CEC), when cold LNG makes contact with warmer air it becomes a visible vapour cloud. As it continues to warm, the vapour cloud becomes lighter than air and rises. When LNG vapour mixes with air it is only flammable if it is within 5-15% natural gas in air. Less than this is not enough to burn, and more than this, there is too much gas in the air and not enough oxygen for it to burn.

According to the CEC, as a liquid, LNG is not explosive. LNG vapour will only explode if it is in an enclosed space, and LNG vapour is only explosive if it is within the flammable range of 5-15% when mixed with air.

As the fuel tender is designed to withstand a large impact, in the unlikely event of LNG escaping from a cryogenic tank during a derailment or collision, Florida’s first-responders along the state’s east coast are being trained in proper response techniques under two or three-day courses involving awareness, operations and command-level training.

Long history

LNG as a fuel has been around for at least 50 years. In 1970, a Wall Street research report was prepared on Cabot Corporation, a Boston organisation that had formed a venture called Distrigas to import LNG into Boston Harbour. “That operation is still running to this day with Trinidad gas; the report has been long forgotten,” says rail and maritime shipping consultant and former analyst Mr Jim Hanscom, who wrote the report. “But Cabot backed out of further extensions into the terminal business and moved on.”

Hanscom recalls going to an international LNG conference in Paris, “where the faithful gathered en-mass to hear the word.”

“The people from Shell were the only ones with any real-world experience,” he says. “Shell had built a small marine vessel based on a containment system that involved screwing individual pieces of balsa wood into the hull, but this was acknowledged as unworkable in a scale-up.

“It has taken LNG a long time to hatch,” Hanscom continues. “First, the developers and producers went off the rails in pricing, failing to consider that LNG had other properties than did oil. The early birds went bust. Aside from making it too expensive, lead times on projects have been gruesome. And then there is the PR. LNG, somehow, managed to become the modern-day equivalent of Darth Vader with a hydrogen bomb threatening small children.

“Actually, LNG is far more benign than half the stuff being hauled on the highways and rails,” Hanscom says. “Its threat involves a complicated set of coincidences: a weather inversion combined with a containment puncture, and so on, so one cannot say a problem could never occur.”

The big move could be just ahead, as the shipping industry adjusts to new environmental rules that work against the economics of fuel oil. 2020 is standing on the corner. Goodbye Bunker C [residual fuel oil]. Goodbye diesel, expensive and polluting. LNG ship ordering comes daily.

“Right now, the dual-fuel engine is in vogue,” Hanscom says. “And, the thermal trade continues to build, as new projects come on stream. The over-supply glut promises to accelerate the spread of LNG’s use, pushing the applications down to retail. I find the FECR move a pleasant surprise. FECR is an innovator and risk-taker.”

We are grateful for the contribution and assistance of former GE engineer Ms Graciela Trillanes who spearheaded this project, working closely with FECR and Chart Industries. Trillanes has since moved on to CNGmotive, a company headed by former EMD engineer Mr David Scott, as sales and marketing director. We also acknowledge the input of Mr Scott Nason, product manager with Chart Industries’ Railroad Products Group; and Mr Steve Ditmeyer, transportation technology and economics principal.

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