Open-Source Platform Simulates Energy Transition Strategies for Rail Infrastructure
An open-source modeling tool, ALTRIOS, helps rail companies assess decarbonization options and optimize the rollout of energy-efficient technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels, batteries, and energy storage systems.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has made public its open-source rail infrastructure simulation platform – the Advanced Locomotive Technology and Rail Infrastructure Optimization System (ALTRIOS). The tool simulates decades of rail network operations to help companies maximize clean energy investments without disrupting scheduling or other day-to-day operations.
BNSF Railway’s double-stack intermodal train is designed to maximize fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. Image used courtesy of BNSF Railway
NREL hails ALTRIOS as the world’s first software platform combining rail and energy storage modeling, train dispatching and corridor simulations, and routing and scheduling.
The full source code is posted on GitHub.
The ALTRIOS platform uses locomotive and railway data to optimize operators’ switch to low-carbon technologies such as batteries, hydrogen fuel cell systems, and biofuels. Image used courtesy of SwRI
How Does ALTRIOS Work?
NREL researchers validated the platform using data from Texas-based BNSF Railway, the country’s largest freight railroad company, and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a nonprofit research organization. Equipped with information on locomotive power, efficiency, fuel consumption, scheduling, and various technical considerations, ALTRIOS evaluates the rollout of alternative low-carbon technologies that help decarbonize rail operations, including battery-electric, fuel cell, advanced biofuel, and hybrid powertrain systems.
Video used courtesy of NREL
ALTRIOS was designed to generate real-world deployment scenarios based on the performance of newer battery-electric locomotives and traditional diesel-electric trains regulated under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Tier 4 emissions category. In addition to various powertrain technologies, the model incorporates several physics-based aspects of rail operation, including train dynamics (drag, grade, inertia, and other factors), component efficiencies, power distribution controls, demand-driven scheduling, and railcar size and weight limitations.
The ALTRIOS framework. Image used courtesy of NREL
In the first deployment of ALTRIOS, researchers demonstrated the benefits of adding battery-powered locomotives on BNSF’s taconite-hauling route. The team is also using ALTRIOS on a project to develop autonomous, battery-electric platooned rail vehicles with flexible routes, ultimately switching freight from trucks to rail. Rail movement is three to four times more fuel-efficient for freight transport than trucks, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Decarbonization In the Rail Industry
Jason Lustbader, an NREL researcher and the project’s head investigator, stated that ALTRIOS could inform both near- and long-term decarbonization strategies, allowing opportunities to scale over time as locomotive technologies improve and rail companies install new systems and see how the changes impact their service.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, transportation is America’s biggest polluting sector, accounting for 38% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2021 (the latest reporting year). Still, per a recent Department of Energy (DOE) report, the rail sector only represents 2% of all transportation emissions, while light-duty vehicles account for 49% and medium-/heavy-duty trucks and buses claim 21%.
In September 2022, the EPA, the DOE, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development penned a memorandum of understanding with the Biden administration to roll out decarbonization programs targeting net-zero emissions by 2050. The U.S. government is pouring heaps of federal cash into the renewable energy transition through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. Some of those funds are going toward transportation initiatives, mainly related to electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in the private sector, the country’s top rail giants have each set their own goals for lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. BNSF Railway plans to cut its GHG footprint by 30% before 2030 (as compared to 2018 levels). Nebraska-headquartered Union Pacific intends to reduce its Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 26% by 2030 (from 2018 levels). Florida’s CSX is cutting its emissions intensity by 37.7% from 2014 to 2030, while Georgia’s Norfolk Southern set a 2034 target to slash its GHG intensity by 42%.