California helps short-line railroad go green

The Modesto & Empire Traction Co. is being called the “greenest” short-line railroad in North America.

The century-old, locally owned railroad is completing the purchase of five new “ultra clean” locomotives, funded largely by a $6.7-million state grant. The U.S.-made locomotives, which have energy-efficient engines that spew far less pollution into the air, are replacing all the railroad’s old locomotives.

Until they arrive, the M&ET is leasing five low-polluting engines, which went into service this winter.

“We retired all of our old stinkers made in the 1940s and 1950s,” Chief Executive Joe Mackil said. “The old ones just belched the junk out. These new things are very clean.”

The switch will make a difference in air quality, which is what persuaded the state to pay for the replacements, said Todd DeYoung, program manager for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

“The impacts will be immediate,” he said. “The benefits will be realized locally. It’s very cost-effective in terms of the emission reductions we’ll get.”

Each new locomotive costs about $1.5 million, of which $1.35 million will come from the state’s Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program. The M&ET will cover the rest of the price tag.

DeYoung said it’s good news for the northern San Joaquin Valley to get state money to pay for the locomotives: “We’re always fighting for the valley’s share of statewide funds.”

The new engines cost less to operate and maintain, reducing the cost of doing business in Modesto, Mackil said.

The old locomotives “probably are going to be exported to a Third World country where they will still be useful, or they will be parted out” as replacement parts, he said.

The railroad’s 16 engineers are also thrilled by the modernization.

“The old locomotives, with all the heat, exhaust fumes and noise they created, were not a friendly environment to work in,” said Ron “Pete” Peterson, the M&ET’s manager of safety and training. “They were very rugged.”

Peterson said some of the old engines were “like driving a Model A.”

The new locomotives, however, are more like a Lexus.

“They’re a lot easier to operate,” he said. “The computer brings on only the power we need, and it turns off what we don’t need.”

The old locomotives required skilled engineers to maneuver through Modesto’s 2,000-acre Beard Industrial District, where the M&ET hauls products to and from about 65 companies, including Frito-Lay and Del Monte.

That requires lots of starting and stopping. Peterson said the old models were slippery on the tracks, but the new ones operate “like a cat clawing up a tree.”

“That old one rides like a buckboard down a dirt road,” Peterson said. “These new engines feel like they float.”

Besides their precise handling and smooth ride, what makes the new R.J. Corman Railpower 2,000-horsepower diesel genset locomotives so special is their energy-efficient design, DeYoung said.

“They are the cleanest technology available in diesel engines right now,” he said.

The locomotives can turn each of their three engines on or off depending on need. If a 100-car grain train is being hauled, all three engines are activated. But when the train pauses, two of those engines automatically shut down.

“That saves them a ton of fuel. The less fuel used, the less greenhouse gases,” said Connie Nordhues, Railpower’s national salesperson.

Compared with the old locomotives the M&ET had used through last fall, the new ones reduce particulate matter emissions 90% and oxide of nitrogen emissions 80%, she said. Those two elements cause air pollution, which is linked to health problems, including asthma and cancer.

The “M&ET’s entire fleet of locomotives now is the cleanest fleet anywhere in the United States and Canada,” Nordhues said.

J.N. Sbranti writes for the Modesto Bee.