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Published March 19 2013

Forum editorial: New way to run a railroad

If natural gas becomes the fuel of choice in railroad locomotives, railway giant BNSF and the state of North Dakota could be partners in a transportation revolution that would be as significant as the transition from horsepower to gasoline engines. BNSF, which flirted with natural gas technologies about 20 years ago, has started a pilot project to test a few locomotives using liquefied natural gas as an alternative to diesel. Officials of Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s administration have met with the railroad to discuss North Dakota’s potential to deliver relatively inexpensive LNG in virtually limitless quantities from the Bakken oil and gas formation in the west.

The possibilities are mind-boggling for North Dakota, and for the railroad. First, gas is abundant. It’s far cheaper than the diesel fuel that moves most of BNSF’s locomotives. The technology to prepare raw gas for use in state-of-the-art and retrofitted LNG engines has advanced a lot since the last time the railroad considered using LNG. And as air quality regulations make it more difficult for diesel to meet new standards, clean-burning natural gas could be a good fit.

If the pilot project goes well, it could be the impetus for investors to build a large plant somewhere in the Bakken that would process natural gas into LNG for use in BNSF’s locomotives. That’s down the track a ways but not out of sight.

Two major companies that manufacture locomotives and/or engines for locomotives are refining natural-gas-burning engine technologies and working with BNSF. The results of the pilot project will determine if retrofits of locomotives will proceed.

A change of this magnitude won’t come easily. Regulatory hurdles and the comfort of doing it the old reliable way are factors in the change equation. But the potential for gain for natural gas producers, the railroad and the environment is immense. And the role of North Dakota’s vast natural gas reserves could be vital to BNSF’s leadership of a historic change in rail and other surface transportation.


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.