Thursday, January 24, 2013

Freight Train - Clean Tech

Union Pacific M–10000 (left) and Burlington Pioneer Zephyr. America’s first two diesel-powered streamliners pose side-by-side at Kansas City’s Union Station. Source:

Freight Train

“Blow Your Whistle Freight Train” was an early classic of American country and bluegrass music, performed by groups as wide ranging as The Delmore Brothers, Hank Snow, Clarence White, The Grateful Dead, Doc Watson, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and by front porch and shade tree pickers such as my Uncle John and myself.
I’d rather be in some dark hollow
Where the sun don’t ever shine
Than to be home alone and knowing that you’re gone
Would cause me to lose my mind.
So blow your whistle freight train
Take me far on down the track
I’m goin’ away I’m leavin’ today
I’m goin‘, but I ain’t comin’ back.
And then there was Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”, also performed by a wide range of musicians including Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, and your correspondent and his uncle:
Freight train freight train goin’ so fast
Freight train freight train goin’ so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
So they won’t know where I’ve gone.
One of the first songs I learned to play.

So what does this have to do with clean tech?

Railroads have been a major force in American westward expansion, economic development, transportation, and culture for close to 200 years. They continue to move massive quantities of freight, but far fewer passengers. They provide a highly fuel efficient means of land transportation, and offer opportunities for innovation to produce more efficiencies. Hence, the connection.

Union Pacific Railroad

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP), headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, is the largest rail network in the US. Founded on July 1, 1862 with the signing of the Pacific Railroad Act by President Abraham Lincoln, the company was directed, along with the Central Pacific, to construct a transcontinental railroad. Seven years later the ‘Golden Spike’ was driven at Promontory, Utah, completing the cross-country line and inaugurating its use. Today the railroad has a fleet of more than 8,000 locomotives, travels in 23 states from Tennessee to the West Coast and the Canadian to Mexican borders on more than 32,000 miles of track, and employees 45,000. According to the company’s 2011 Fact Book, the railroad moved 978,163 gross ton-miles of freight, using 1,106 million gallons of fuel, had an average train speed of 25.6 mph, and an average inventory of 272,900 rail cars. UP’s freight revenue was obtained from energy (2%), intermodal (20%), agricultural (18%), industrial products (17%), chemicals (15%), and autos (8%).


Shipping containers and over-the-road trailers are often shipped long distances via rail, mixing different modes of freight transportation, hence, ‘intermodal’.

Rail transportation of freight is three times more fuel efficient than moving the same freight on the highway. A ton of freight can be moved 450 miles on one gallon of fuel (e.g., diesel) via rail. Even though this is a very fuel efficient mode of land transport, railroads are constantly working to improve their fuel efficiency. One of the ways this is being carried out is through improvements to railroad locomotives. For example, see our posts here and here on a new fuel cell locomotive. The latter post contains a photo taken at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

Another approach to increased fuel efficiency is modifications to the rolling stock.

Remember Aerodynamic Locomotives? Intermodal Container Cars Join Them

Does anyone remember the aerodynamic train engines of days gone by, particularly those from the 30s–50s?

Inventor Michael Iden was awarded patent US 8,215,239, ‘Aerodynamic pseudocontainer for reducing drag associated with stacked intermodal containers’, on July 10, 2012 from the USPTO Green Tech Pilot Program. Union Pacific benefitted from the accelerated examination offered by the program, receiving the patent slightly more than 18 months after initial filing.

Iden’s abstract provides a succinct, understandable summary of his invention:
Disclosed is an aerodynamic pseudocontainer for a train. The pseudocontainer is configured to be stacked atop an intermodal container in a lead container car at a lead end of the train, so that its aerodynamic configuration reduces drag when the train is in motion, thereby reducing fuel costs and emissions. The pseudocontainer may have connectors on its bottom so that when it is placed on top of the intermodal container, locking devices may be used for attachment.
This is illustrated by one of the patent drawings, and the photo showing the testing of Union Pacific’s ‘aerowedge’ prototype in August 2012.

A Historical Connection

The earliest patent citation on Iden’s ‘239 patent is US2,253,209 granted to John W. Patton on August 19, 1941 and assigned to the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia. Patton recognized that “it is desirable to provide a rounded end on the last car of the train.” This led to a railroad efficiency problem (i.e., an unintended consequence of innovation) because it meant that the last train car was a very different configuration than the others in the train, resulting in the need “to turn the train around at each of its terminals in order to prepare it for its return run.” This was found to be impractical, and Patton developed his solution:
One object of the present invention is to solve this problem by providing a streamlined casing for removable attachment to the tractor unit of the train, so that the tractor unit may be connected to the rounded end of a car and still preserve the streamlined appearance of the train.
His removable streamlining attachment, showing in an accompanying drawing, is a direct antecedent of Union Pacific’s new “Aerowedge” attachment for intermodal freight cars.