This isn’t directly about cars, but just consider the subject, because I happen to be a lifelong railfan, and I’ve always been fascinated with the technical systems that allowed railroading to be the most efficient means of moving huge quantities of cargo across the terra firma. Don’t think it’s relevant? You will recall that Big Bill Knudsen used to supervise the construction of steam locomotives in Buffalo before he went to work for Henry Ford and later, ran General Motors. Just saying, because trains are cool, and speaking of which, here’s a way that the GM of today is making them even cooler and more relevant.
This week, GM announced that it will make the Ultium batteries and HYDROTEC hydrogen fuel-cell systems it’s been developing for road vehicles available for use by Wabtec Corporation, which is now one of North America’s two big builders of railroad locomotives, having bought the historic General Electric locomotive works in Erie, Pennsylvania. If you’re unfamiliar with how rail locomotives work, they use a huge diesel prime mover that turns an electric generator, which in turn powers traction motors located on each drive axle that actually propel the locomotive. Pittsburgh-based Wabtec is now developing alternative-fuels locomotives in conjunction with the California Air Resources Board, BNSF Railway and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The GM systems will be used in projects like Wabtec’s FLXdrive locomotive, now undergoing testing on BNSF’s freight route between Barstow and Stockton, California. The FLXdrive system utilizes 20 racks of lithium-ion batteries set low in the locomotive’s frame, which can either be recharged at a BNSF station in Stockton or else on the fly, using the regenerative or “dynamic” braking process that’s standard in modern diesel operation. With four powered axles, the FLXdrive locomotive can boot the train to 75 MPH along the 350-mile route without needing a recharge, all while reducing locomotive emissions by some 10 percent. This is really good news for both GM and the rail industry.