Why The Government Just Threw Down $225 Million On Hybrid Electric Trains

CREDIT: Siemens

A design rendering of the Siemens hybrid locomotives.

The Illinois Department of Transportation signed a contract to bring a total of 32 hybrid electric-diesel trains to the United States last month. The trains will start running by 2016. And the project, when all is said and done, will cost the United States $225 million — a number that may sound enormous but that will actually save a significant amount of both money and the carbon pollution that drives climate change.

“The Charger locomotives will be used exclusively in passenger service,” a release from Siemens, the company manufacturing the locomotives, says. The engines “will be manufactured in the U.S. by Cummins Inc., headquartered in Columbus, Indiana,” and, will run in Illinois, California, Michigan, Missouri and Washington. The trains themselves will be manufactured in California. Should all go well with the original 32, there’s an option for an additional 225 locomotives down the line. The hybrid electric engines will make the trains more efficient.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration told ThinkProgress that the locomotives will cost about one million dollars more than the trains currently on the rails, which were designed several decades ago. The new trains are a part of the mandate under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA), for trains to have “light weight, high acceleration capabilities, ability to operate at sustained speeds of 120mph, compliance with passenger equipment safety standards including crashworthiness, and EPA Tier IV diesel emission standards,” spokesman Warren Flatau explained via email.

The emissions standards, in particular, are what will make the locomotives worth the extra million dollars apiece. Those EPA standards require a 90 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide, a greenhouse gas, and in particulate matter (aka soot), which contributes to pollution and health problems.

Transportation is one of the largest sources of CO2 emissions and thus climate change in the world. But the questions on rail specifically are more complex. Its emissions make it among the most efficient methods of transportation — accounting for about two percent of transportation emissions compared with 70 percent from cars — but trains are not always full, so the emissions per passenger can quickly rise. And most calculations don’t include the emission costs of actually constructing rail lines.

Still, on existing lines, the new hybrid trains can only be good news. A similar train in Germany, in fact, reduced carbon emissions and energy use by a full 25 percent compared to standard trains.


This article has been updated to reflect the fact that only the engines will be built in Indiana, while the rest of the trains will be manufactured in California.

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