In 2020 and Beyond, Freight and Passenger Rail Rely on Diesel

Over 26,000 diesel-powered locomotives in service today; Adoption of newest generation of near-zero emissions units growing

WASHINGTON, DC, March 03, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- From regional short line freight service to coast to coast passenger trains, the nation’s railroads depend on diesel power.  With increasing investments in new technology diesel engines and repowering and replacement of existing engines, railroads are poised for achieving greater service and efficiency goals.  

“Diesel has long been the technology of choice for moving people and goods by rail thanks to diesel’s proven technology, efficiency, durability reliability and now near-zero emissions,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, an educational association based near Washington, DC. 

According to the latest available data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), at the end of 2018 just over 26,000 freight locomotives were in operation in the U.S., and 431 passenger rail locomotives.  With the exception of a few passenger rail lines that are electrified (Amtrak’s Northeast corridor and Harrisburg, PA line), the remainder of passenger rail and all of freight rail in the U.S. is diesel-powered.

“The efficiency of diesel technology over other fuel types is well known, but in freight rail, it’s taken to a whole new level,” noted Schaeffer.  “U.S. freight railroads can, on average, move one ton of freight more than 470 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, thanks to the low rolling resistance of steel wheels coupled together with the energy efficiency of the diesel locomotive.  According to the Association of American Railroads the nation’s 64 freight railroads transit a network of nearly 137,000 freight rail miles. In 2018, U.S. Class I railroads moved 1.5 million carloads of food products, 1.5 million carloads of grain and other farm products, 1.2 million carloads of lumber and paper products, 2.4 million carloads of chemicals, and 1.8 million carloads of motor vehicles and parts.

While the average car engine today has about 200 hp, locomotive engines typically start at ten times that amount.  Train operators rely on diesel power across the full range of rail power applications:  

  • The smallest locomotive engines (up to 2,000 horsepower) are used in switch operations in freight yards to assemble and disassemble trains or are used in short hauls of small trains.
  • Passenger locomotives (typically 3,000 horsepower) are often accompanied by an auxiliary engine for "hotel" power to passenger train cars.
  • The most powerful locomotive engines (up to 4,000 horsepower) are primarily used for long distance freight train operations by America’s seven Class I railroads.

Today, the transformation to near-zero emissions in locomotive engines for every application is complete, with new engines now achieving the U.S. EPA Tier 4 Emissions regulations for both particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen, utilizing ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel.

Demonstrating the sustainability of diesel power for rail service, some railroads like Northern California’s Capitol Corridor Rail are successfully utilizing advanced renewable biodiesel fuels in existing locomotives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In California, the San Joaquin Valley short line railroad recently replaced old power units with new switcher locomotives that achieve near zero levels of emissions reducing a total of 317.46 tons of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Particulate Matter (PM) and Reactive Organic Gases (ROG) over the life of the project, with a cost effectiveness of $24,644 per ton.

With these kinds of innovations, diesel-powered freight and passenger rail technology is well poised to serve the future growing demands of industry.  The U.S. Department of Transportation FHWA Office of Freight Management forecasts that total U.S. freight movements will rise from around 17.7 billion tons in 2016 to 24.2 billion tons in 2040; a 37 percent increase. 

“Whatever form the future takes, we can be 110 percent sure that diesel engines will be a central part of it.  Near zero emissions, suitability for hybridization and electrification and the ability to utilize more advanced renewable biofuels are all key features of advanced diesel technology today and will only grow in importance for tomorrow,” said Schaeffer. 

For more information visit the Leaders in Advanced Locomotive Engine Technology


About the Diesel Technology Forum

The Diesel Technology Forum is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of Diesel engines, fuel and technology. Forum members are leaders in clean Diesel technology developing advanced engines and components, cleaner diesel and renewable fuels, and emissions-control systems. For more information, visit


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