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Colossal freight locomotives are a fixture of the American landscape, but their 4,400-horsepower engines collectively burn 3.5 billion gallons of diesel annually, at a time when railroads and other fossil fuel users face pressure to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

With little fanfare, however, the industry has begun operating locomotives that run on stored electrical power, moving toward a future in which toy shops are not the only source of battery trains. American passenger lines could also be transformed by the technology, though California rail officials say it will not work for the state’s bullet train.

In a just-completed test, BNSF ran a freight train from Barstow to Stockton with an experimental battery locomotive, coupled with two diesel locomotives, and achieved an 11% reduction in fuel consumption, along with similar reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxides, small particulates and greenhouse gases. An upgraded future operational version is expected to improve fuel efficiency by 30%.

The test was a “defining moment for freight rail,” accelerating the industry to eventual zero-emission locomotives, said Eric Gebhardt, chief technology officer at Wabtec, which developed the system at its research center near Lake Erie in northern Pennsylvania.

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