Interview: Sierra Northern’s president discusses the firm’s ambitious hydrogen conversion project

4 mins read

To lead the charge in reducing carbon emissions within the golden state’s rail industry, Californian operator Sierra Northern Railway (SERA) has embarked on an ambitious project to decarbonize its switching locomotive fleet using hydrogen power.

The US$19.5m initiative, which is supported by funding from Californian state authorities and the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, involves converting four diesel switching locomotives to hydrogen-powered, zero-emission solutions.

The project will see SERA, alongside industry partners, develop, demonstrate, and test the hydrogen-fueled switcher locomotives on the soon to be constructed test track in SERA’s West Sacramento rail yard. The project is due for completion in Q4 2027. SERA’s long-term goal is to eventually convert its entire fleet to hydrogen powered zero-emission switchers.

Kennan Beard, president, and CEO of Sierra Northern Railway (above), says, “We received a grant from the California Energy Commission for US$4m to build the first of its kind, hydrogen-battery hybrid switching locomotive. In today’s world of hydrogen fuel cells, we’re the first in a switching environment, at least in the US and Canadian Pacific. We partnered with several prominent industry names, including the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, Railpower Tech, and Ballard Power Systems. Ballard is supplying the fuel cells, Railpower Tech is responsible for the locomotive controls, and Sierra Northern is handling the construction.”

Project progress

Looking at how the project is progressing so far, Beard continues, “We have taken a former RailPower GenSet – one of the 34 different GenSets in our fleet – and stripped it back to the deck. The key components, including the hydrogen tanks, fuel cell rack, and battery rack, are in our shop, ready to be mounted on the locomotive. However, the battery rack assembly is pending due to a delay in battery delivery, which is a common issue in the industry. Once the batteries arrive, we will proceed with assembly and installation, with the expectation that the locomotive will be operational by the first quarter of 2024.”

The decision to opt for hydrogen is grounded in “practical considerations,” according to Beard. “There are several reasons for choosing hydrogen over pure battery power,” he says. “Battery technology is not ready yet, it’s still evolving slowly, and it’s struggling to provide sufficient onboard power for a full day’s switching operations. In contrast, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies are progressing more rapidly.

“Additionally, Sierra Northern’s sister company, Sierra Energy, operates a waste-to-energy system that can produce hydrogen through the gasification of materials such as municipal solid waste and used railroad ties. This closed-loop system ensures a carbon-negative footprint, a feat not achievable with batteries,” Beard adds.

Supply chain challenges

Challenges have arisen during the conversion process, mainly related to the supply chain. Beard explains more, “The most significant challenge currently is our supply chain. Components that were initially scheduled for shipping in May or June only just started arriving in October. Delays in obtaining batteries and hydrogen tanks have also impacted our timeline. Given the increasing demand for batteries and fuel cells due to California’s zero-emission goals for buses and trucks [carbon neutrality by 2045], supply chain challenges are expected to persist.”

In line with California’s goals, SERA has developed its own long-term climate plans, which include a complete transition to zero-emission hydrogen locomotives in the future. “In the next few years, we aim to eliminate all diesel locomotives from the Sacramento division and replace them with zero-emission hydrogen locomotives,” Beard says.

“The plan extends to our other divisions, where we have a total of 34 locomotives. The conversion process may take seven to 10 years or more, contingent on funding availability. Grants play a crucial role because railroads, especially shortlines, cannot afford the substantial cost of replacing diesel locomotives with zero-emission alternatives. Our ultimate goal is to achieve 100% hydrogen-powered locomotives within the next decade,” he adds.

Hydrogen refueling

As for refueling and maintenance, SERA has devised practical solutions. Beard explains, “Initially, we will rely on a mobile refueler to supply hydrogen to the locomotives. The original California Energy Commission grant included provisions for a multimodal fueling station, which was to be built by Shell but this plan has been abandoned. We are now exploring opportunities to establish stationary fueling stations that offer cost advantages and can be deployed at various locations in our network.”

Sierra Northern Railway’s commitment to hydrogen-powered locomotives represents a significant leap forward in the quest for sustainable transportation solutions. With a focus on innovation, practicality, and long-term environmental benefits, SERA is paving the way for a greener future in the rail industry. “I hope that all companies can discover a clean energy solution,” Beard says. “Some have made substantial investments in batteries, but it turns out that batteries may not be suitable for the demanding work of heavy haul locomotives. In our view, the most promising green alternative at the moment is hydrogen, especially since diesel is gradually being phased out.”

Californian shortlines oppose new In-Use Locomotive Regulation

Sierra Northern Railway’s Kennan Beard is also president of the California Short Line Railroad Association, which has recently opposed the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) new In-Use Locomotive Regulation, due to come into effect from January 2024.

The timeline in the regulation, which includes a mandate that all switch, industrial, and passenger locomotives built after 2030 and line-haul locomotives built after 2035 must operate with zero-emissions in the state, is “not realistic,” according to Beard. “We have fought hand-in-hand against the CARB regulation, not because the railroads are against cleaner air or cleaner locomotives, but because we just can’t meet its timelines,” he says.

The regulation also states that from 2030, only locomotives less than 23 years old will be able to be used in California. “This means that older locomotives will need to be destroyed and moved off our property,” Beard adds. “Shortlines have locomotives that are 50-60 years old.

“I ran the calculations for my company – the savings approach [put forward by CARB] would mean we’d have to pay US$2m a year into an account based on emissions,” he continues. “I can’t take that out of my operating income because then I would never be able to do anything else in the way of capital improvements because every dime we make would be going into a savings account.

“And with 34 locomotives in the Sierra fleet, at US$5m a piece, that equals about US$170m to replace the fleet – at US$2m a year in the savings account, it would take us around 80 years of payments just to pay for it all. That’s simply not realistic,” he adds.

“There are other things that can be done, again, with funding and with technology, and we’ll get there. But the technology won’t get us there to convert the entire California fleet of 250 locomotives by 2030/2035,” Beard concluded.