The sound of choo-chooing left the commercial railway business years ago, and now the smell of burnt diesel fuel may be going away, too. Via the Railway Gazette, news comes of a project in Kansas by a team to develop a fuel-cell powered switcher (a.k.a., “shunter” for those of you outside the U.S.) locomotive. The team – Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway, Vehicle Projects LLC and the U.S. Army – says this will make BNSF the first railroad in the world to develop an experimental hydrogen fuel cell switch locomotive. According to the BNSF website, “the experimental switch locomotive has the potential to reduce air pollution, is not dependent on oil for fuel, and could serve as a mobile backup power source for military and civilian disaster relief efforts.” BNSF estimates its diesel locomotive fleet burns about four million gallons a day, about 2% of all US diesel fuel usage, and diesel fuel represented 26% of its operating costs at one point last year. The Gazette reports that:

The experimental locomotive will carry compressed hydrogen on board in tanks similar to those used on fuel-cell road vehicles. Since the fuel cells . . . [are] expected to be two to three times more fuel-efficient than a standard US diesel locomotive.

According to BNSF, the electricity generated by the on-board fuel cell power module will be stored in batteries or fed directly to the locomotive’s high-voltage propulsion system. DC choppers will be used to control the power to each traction motor independently, providing substantially improved adhesion compared to a conventional locomotive wheel-slip system. BNSF says the locomotive will be rated at 2 000 hp for traction.

It’s not exactly clear where the locomotive is in terms of field testing. The fuel cell locomotive project was announced in January 2008, although work appears to have actually started in 2007. When the official announcement was made, BNSF thought it might have a prototype making test runs by the middle of last year, but progress apparently has slowed somewhat:

BNSF and Vehicle Products had hoped to begin testing the completed unit in 2008, but are now expecting to start operations during 2009. The loco is also expected to visit the Transportation Technology Center at Pueblo for testing by the Federal Railroad Administration.

It appears that Vehicle Projects efforts to develop a fuel cell locomotive go back to at least 2005 and, at least then, focused on PEM fuel cells.