Happy Train Day: Celebrating the Bright Minds & Tech Behind GE’s Locomotives

It may be hard to believe, but in today’s world of faster, stronger, smarter and cheaper, the good old train system remains the most energy efficient way to move goods from one place to another. But the locomotives that pull these trains aren’t the clunky, dirty, primitive steam engine workhorses depicted in old western movies; no, these machines are a sophisticated integration of power production, thermal management and system control technologies. Some of the recent advancements include dual fuel (diesel and natural gas) operation, the capability to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tier 4 emission requirements, and Trip Optimizer implementation.

Revolutionizing an aging industry like railway transportation requires bright minds and innovative solutions. Today at GE Global Research, we celebrate the hundreds of  employees who work every day to bring change to an industry that some may say reached its peak in technological advancement long ago. For us, we relish in the challenge of powering a new era that will define the industry and help support people, businesses and the national economy.



A move towards cleaner technology
On January 1, 2015 the EPA’s Tier 4 emission standards will go into effect, reducing the amount of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) that locomotives can emit. When plans for the single largest emission reduction in the rail sector’s history were announced ten years ago, it prompted GE to take a good hard look at the technology behind its locomotives.

GE Global Research and GE Transportation spent several years building, experimenting and testing a new engine design that could effectively and efficiently meet these strict requirements. The team at GE Global Research utilized a single cylinder engine for testing, gathered detailed measurements of the exhaust and plugged the information into custom software models designed to simulate a full-scale engine.

The final result — the Evolution® Tier 4 engine — decreases emissions by more than 70 percent. It also saves customers more than $1.5 billion in urea infrastructure and operational costs by eliminating the 4,000-pound catalytic converter. The Evolution Tier 4 is the only locomotive engine that meets the EPA’s Tier 4 requirements without any after-treatment technology. Development of the ecomagination®-certified engine was part of a $600 million investment in the Evolution Series by GE Transportation.

A natural alternative
Diesel is the fuel of choice for locomotives, but natural gas is cheaper, produces less CO2 emissions, and is abundantly available. That’s the premise behind GE’s work to develop a duel fuel locomotive –incorporating natural gas as an engine fuel to reduce emissions and potentially cut fuel costs by 50 percent while not compromising performance.

Development of the capability is ongoing, and GE Global Research continues to study advanced combustion in locomotive engines to extend fuel flexibility between diesel and natural gas. In the meantime, GE engineers have rolled out the NextFuel™ natural gas retrofit kit for EPA Tier 2+/Tier 3 locomotives.

NextFuel offers 100 percent diesel operability with up to 80 percent natural gas substitution. This capability can reduce locomotive fuel costs by up to 50 percent.

A more efficient journey
GE Global Research has its hand in revolutionizing the locomotive’s ancillary systems. While the engine itself plays a major role in the locomotive’s operation, system-level improvements can have a great impact on overall efficiency.

Take, for example, the development of Trip Optimizer. The system creates a trip profile that minimizes braking by automatically learning a train’s characteristics. It considers such factors as train length, weight, grade, track conditions, weather and locomotive performance. Trip Optimizer is comprised of a sophisticated network of on-board computers with GPS systems that continuously update the profile and adjust for changes so the train can arrive on time. It is proven to not only cut fuel costs, but reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Our team at GE Global Research has and continues to develop Trip Optimizer so it can positively impact overall systems operations. On the current rail system it takes less than one gallon of fuel to transport one ton of freight from Washington, D.C., to Boston , MA, and we are working hard to continually improve that freight movement efficiency.

So while the nation may take one day per year to celebrate the history, evolution and future of our trains, just remember that there are many employees at GE Global Research who spend every day working to develop the next big thing for the railway transportation industry.