Environment and Sustainability, Freight Rail, Rolling stock & Rail Vehicle Design, Social Governance

The tickets to low carbon transport

Rail Express caught up with Wabtec Senior Regional Vice President, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Wendy McMillan — fresh from a trip to Wabtec’s head office in Pittsburgh in the US, as well as Fort Worth, Erie and Grove City — to discuss how the company continues to fine-tune its technology-driven solutions to achieve a net-zero emissions future. 

“Sustainability and ESG are priorities for everyone in the industry,” she said. “Everyone is strongly focused on what this means for them, and there’s been a lot in the press put forward by some leading light.

“But actions speak louder than words; this is the year of execution, and people doubling down on that strategy and what it means for them and making those decision points. 

“We’re certainly seeing that with our customer base and partners, getting to that next level of granularity, and rolling out how they want to be part of the solution very quickly and adopting that technology.” 

And this is where Wabtec has already taken the lead, and continues to do so. 

The company’s portfolio centres around freight rail, which fuels the world’s economy, connecting regions and cities, moving goods across the nation, to put food on tables and products in stores for purchase.   

“Freight rail is the backbone of economic activity — and by converting diesel-powered locomotives to an alternative energy source like batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, we can eliminate up to 2700 tonnes of CO2 per year,” McMillan said. 

“Wabtec has a clear vision of cleaner and greener freight. Our Freight 2030 vision seeks to expand the use of freight rail, accelerate the reduction of more than 100 million tonnes of GHG emissions per year, reduce road congestion in our cities and make transportation safer for everyone.” 

Indeed, Wabtec’s FLXdrive technology, which can transition diesel-powered locomotives to battery power and drastically reduce emissions, has been a major success story, being taken up by several mining companies in WA, including giants BHP, Roy Hill and Rio Tinto. 

And interest has been so high that they could soon feature in the Eastern States. 

“We are in discussions with a number of customers all up and down the East Coast,” McMillan said. 

“The specs are different — the gauge and the type of mining operations don’t mirror over to the East, so we are looking at adapting the locomotives, and using the local engineering requirements.” 

Wabtec’s engine upgrade solutions are renowned, such as the FDL Advantage: a fuel-saving package for its FDL locomotive platform as well as a complete control system replacement.  

The FDL engine has been in production since the 1950s and operates in heavy-haul applications throughout the world. 

The FDL Advantage was an upgrade to the existing FDL engine that provides significant fuel savings at the Tier 1+ emission level. It features improved air handling and a high-pressure common rail fuel system which offers improved injection control, allowing for improved tuning of the engine.  

Wendy McMillan at Wabtec head office in Pennsylvania, USA.

The next phase of upgrades is focused on the Evolution Series engine product line (EVO) which will feature electric turbo (5 per cent fuel savings) and solutions that will provide an 8 per cent savings in fuel within the decade. Customers can also take existing products and upgrade the engine to achieve significant fuel savings, cost savings and CO2 reductions,” McMillan said. 

Wabtec also recently signed a definitive agreement to acquire Nordco, a leading North American supplier of new, rebuilt and used maintenance-of-way equipment, which has a broad product and service portfolio including mobile railcar movers and ultrasonic rail flaw detection technologies. 

Wabtec will expand its installed base and accelerate growth across Nordco’s innovative product portfolio both in the North American market and internationally, while driving increased value creation for customers and shareholders.  

The Nordco family of companies provides an extensive selection of products and services with zero emissions priorities that enable rail-related industries to build, improve, maintain and inspect their track infrastructure and reposition rolling stock. 

“For example, the products include a zero-emissions shunter, the NVX Series,” McMillan said. 

The shuttle wagon includes enhanced rail stability, better performance in poor weather conditions, improved tire life and the ability to navigate up to 70 degree track curvature, and is the only such unit which is fully electrically-driven. 

All the while, Wabtec’s research into more sustainable innovations proceeds at a furious pace. 

For example last year, Wabtec and General Motors collaborated to develop and commercialise GM’s Ultium battery technology and Hydrotec hydrogen fuel cell systems for Wabtec locomotives. 

Wabtec brought its expertise in energy management and systems optimisation to develop a solution for heavy haul locomotives that takes full advantage of GM’s advanced technologies. 

The Hydrotec hydrogen fuel cell power cubes are compact and easy to package, and can be used in a wide range of applications, including locomotives.  

This was followed up soon after by Wabtec’s liaison with Genesee & Wyoming, the US’ largest owner of short line and regional freight railroads, to pursue zero-emission battery and hydrogen freight strategies, as well as increase rail utilisation across North America. 

“By 2030, Wabtec will see a 92 per cent reduction in emissions through hydrogen technology innovation,” McMillan said. 

Ultimately, Wabtec is leading the charge to create a safer and more efficient rail network.  

“A safer and more efficient rail network helps our customers reduce a significant operating cost — diesel fuel — which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution,” McMillan said. 

“We believe it’s important to listen to our key stakeholders and focus on areas where Wabtec can enable the most meaningful impact for our customers, communities, and the world.  

“There is always more we can do, and we are committed to mitigating the impacts of climate change within our products and operations and doing more to create a diverse workforce and empower our people to bring the best innovations to every customer we serve.”