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Hybrid locomotives pull their own weight

Two Union Pacific engines use the latest in sustainable technology
by: Jim Clark, In addition to firing up two new hybrid-powered switcher locomotives at Albina Yard, Union Pacific is using solar panels to power some of the electric rail switches there (pictured).

Two of the largest hybrid vehicles in the world are now in Portland - 280,000-pound, 52-foot diesel/electric locomotives owned and operated by Union Pacific Railroad.

At a time when even sport utility vehicles are being offered as hybrids, the locomotives stand out as a remarkable exercise in sustainable technology. Manufactured by RailPower Technologies Corp. of Vancouver, British Columbia, they are powered by large banks of batteries. When the power runs low, a small low-emission diesel engine automatically starts to run a generator that recharges them.

The state-of-the-art hybrid locomotives are designed to cut air emissions by up to 90 percent and reduce diesel fuel use by as much as 80 percent, compared with conventional diesel-powered switchers that spend much of their time idling.

'Union Pacific is taking significant steps to improve and protect the environment,' Bob Grimalla, the company's vice president for environment and safety, said of the hybrid purchases.

The hybrid locomotive is a 'switcher,' designed to pull rail cars in switch yards where trains are reconfigured before leaving on their runs. The two hybrid locomotives, which are new, are being broken in at the Albina Yard, which sits on the east bank of the Willamette River at North Interstate Avenue and Russell Street.

The bright yellow hybrids are easy to spot. They look different from conventional locomotives - low and boxy instead of tall and round.

In its promotional material, RailPower says hybrid technology is ideal for switcher locomotives because 'they operate in an inefficient 'stop-go' manner that is hard on the large engines of conventional units.'

Despite the unconventional design, the hybrid locomotives produce 2,000 horsepower and can reach a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour.

The locomotives were bought as part of a companywide push to reduce pollution and conserve fuel wherever possible. Union Pacific has purchased 10 of the locomotives. In addition, the company has signed a contract with the National Railway Equipment Co. to build 60 low-emission diesel locomotives, each powered by three 700-horsepower engines certified as low-emission by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The company also is using solar panels to power much of its switching equipment. Many already are scattered throughout the Albina Yard. They also are used along remote tracks where electricity is not readily available.

Union Pacific Railroad links 23 states in the western two-thirds of the country.

Once the hybrid locomotives are broken in, they'll be sent to California and Texas, where state clean air laws are stricter than in Oregon. But as the Union Pacific fleet grows, the Albina Yard can expect to be assigned its own hybrids for permanent use.

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