'Innovative, complicated, promising': Metra to test battery-powered locomotives
Six of Metra's oldest diesel locomotives could lead the way to a greener future for the agency.
Board directors have approved a $34.6 million contract with Alabama-based Progress Rail to convert the engines to zero-emissions battery-powered models, with delivery anticipated in 2026.
The commuter railroad will test the revamped locomotives on the Rock Island Line initially.
"If these locomotives prove themselves, they could play a significant role in our fleet and in our future, and the concept could serve as a template for other railroads to follow," Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said in a statement.
It's relatively unchartered territory in the U.S. for passenger trains, although France's national railway company, SNCF, is exploring the use of batteries in its locomotives.
"Particulate pollution from diesel engines from a variety of sources is a big air pollution and health issue here in Chicago," Environmental Law & Policy Center Deputy Direction Kevin Brubaker said.
"So for Metra to be pushing the envelope a little bit and investing in and experimenting with this new technology is really good news. It's innovative, it's complicated, it's promising, it's not a slam dunk, which is all the more reason why it's important."
To power the locomotives, the agency will use multiple banks of lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, which have a strong safety record and long life span, said Sean Cronin, senior director of mechanical capital projects.
"With this innovative new procurement, these locomotives will be drastically different from our current ones but in some aspects strangely familiar," Cronin told Metra directors at an Aug. 17 meeting.
The locomotives will be compatible with Metra railcars and reach speeds of 79 mph, the railroad's maximum. However, unlike Metra's silver, orange or blue color schemes, the battery-powered trains could be green.
The battery range is about 150 miles. "We would be testing them on the Rock Island Beverly Branch between LaSalle and Blue Island, which is 16 miles, so they could make about five round trips before recharging," Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.
Officials "believe there will be a number of benefits," Senior Director of Mechanical Operations Shon George told directors.
"The obvious benefit is there will be no diesel emissions, which will improve air quality in our yards and along the lines." The locomotives will also be much quieter and cost less to operate and maintain, he added.
The agency is using its share of a Volkswagen lawsuit settlement and state capital funding to pay for the project.
Metra first issued a request for proposals in 2021. The first three converted trains will take 3½ years to produce, and the railroad has an option for three more.
Eventually, Metra technicians might conduct locomotive conversion in-house.