Written by Aaron-Michael Fox.

The sound of a CSX diesel-electric coal train is quite familiar to most West Virginians of any age. It’s been a recognizable sound echoing through our valleys and off our hills for decades. Moving forward, however, we will likely soon be listening for the new sounds of hydrogen-powered trains.

Earlier this week, CSX Transportation unveiled their first hydrogen engine at the Locomotive Shops here in Huntington, West Virginia.

Hydrogen is becoming an increasingly popular power source in the form of both hydrogen combustion engines and hydrogen fuel cell engines. Both are considered zero emissions. Hydrogen combustion engines burn hydrogen in almost an identical fashion to gasoline engines. Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen in a chamber and use the electricity to power the engine in much the same way as a standard electric vehicle. The new CSX locomotive is a hydrogen fuel cell electric engine.

The two most common methods for producing hydrogen are steam-methane reforming and electrolysis. Electrolysis is commonly demonstrated in school science classes where water is split into oxygen and hydrogen using electricity. Steam-methane production involves separating the hydrogen from other gasses where it naturally occurs, generally natural gas. Steam-methane production emits oxygen, carbon monoxide, and a small amount of carbon dioxide. Virtually all commercial hydrogen in the United States is produced with steam-methane.

The new locomotive was built in partnership with Canadian Pacific Kansas City railroad (CPKC) which pioneered the technology and already has hydrogen-powered engines hauling freight in Canada. The new US CSX locomotive was revealed to the public less than 12 months after the partnership with CPKC was announced last summer.

The new engine is a retrofit of an existing engine, so it used minimal carbon in its production. The conversion utilized several existing components including the frame, cab, traction motors, and trucks.

According to the press release from CSX, hydrogen presents a promising alternative to fossil fuels, offering greater fuel efficiency and zero emissions. This is a big step for CSX, which has committed to reducing their carbon footprint by 37% by 2040.

Hydrogen-powered engines emit only water vapor and some trace gases from lubricants and the natural environment. However, the construction process will still emit some carbon.

The next step is field testing for the new locomotive to empirically see if hydrogen power is going to be the future of freight rail traffic.

The retrofit construction was done entirely on-site at the CSX Locomotive Shops in Huntington’s Highlawn neighborhood.

“The team that we have here at Huntington, in my opinion, there’s no other place like this,” Daniel Adkins, the Project Coordinator said. “From electricians to boilermakers to pipefitters, we have guys that—through the collective experience—we can do anything. If you can dream it, we can build it.”

“CSX and Huntington have a long and sentimental history,” said Huntington City Councilwoman Tia Rumbaugh. “I grew up next to the tracks—they’ve encircled our lives and our town and all the ups and downs that have gone along with it. It’s just wonderful that Huntington and CSX continue to make history together.”

“Since its industrialization, Appalachia has been a major part of the American energy story, so it’s especially poetic to have history written with hydrogen technology in Huntington, West Virginia,” said Mark Totten of the C&O Historical Society. “The unveiling of CSX’s first hydrogen-powered locomotive is an innovation milestone that proves 21st-century jobs with the railroad and other industries can flourish in the Mountain State.”



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