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Low-emission locomotives are on track

Engines that use less fuel and cut emissions are put into service to move cargo at the port complex.

July 10, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Jeff Robinson settled into the driver's seat of his new, low-emission locomotive Monday, released the air brakes and moved a throttle lever, making the engine roar and his train rumble forward with 9,000 tons of imported goods in tow.

The locomotive could easily have been mistaken for a 1950s model, given its vintage shiny black-and-silver zebra-stripe paint job. But under the hood, according to its owners and air-quality officials, was an example of cutting-edge diesel-electric technology: a V-12, 2,000-horsepower machine that dramatically cuts unhealthful emissions.

Moving about 10 mph while occasionally slowing down for track switches and light signals, Robinson maneuvered the train through the seaport complex.

It took Robinson only a few minutes to haul his load from one terminal to another less than a mile away.

That's the task of a short-line railroad like his Pacific Harbor Line at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex.

Its mission is to switch carloads of imported goods onto tracks for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Union Pacific, which then transport the goods throughout the U.S.

Pacific Harbor aims to replace its entire fleet of grimy 50-year-old locomotives with 16 custom-built, low-emission machines, which operate on ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's standards for air pollutantreduction.

Each new locomotive costs about $1.3 million.

The locomotives burn 30% less fuel than the old ones and will cut smog-forming nitrous oxides by about 46% -- or about 163 tons -- each year, officials said. They will also reduce harmful diesel particulates by about 70% -- or about three tons -- each year.

"Even the old locomotives at their worst are better than the alternative, trucks, at their best," said Andrew Fox, president of Pacific Harbor Line.

By January, Pacific Harbor will have one of the lowest average emissions profiles of any railroad in the United States, according to port authorities, who lauded the move as an important step under their 2006 Clean Air Action Plan to reduce harmful harbor air pollutants by 50% within five years.

Pacific Harbor currently has four of the locomotives in service on its 60 miles of busy tracks that crisscross the 7,500-acre port complex.

The rest will be phased in at a rate of two per month.

The company also has ordered three locomotives of an even newer, cleaner design.

Under terms of an industry-ports partnership, the roughly $23-million cost of the fleet is being shared by Pacific Harbor, which has spent $10 million on the project, and the ports, which have provided $5 million each. Additional funds are coming from the California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"This is a big deal for the ports," said Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.

"It sets the bar for what we expect in terms of dock usage and rail activity, and is just one more piece of evidence of how we are putting our money where our mouth is in terms of greening port operations."

Unlike so-called road locomotives, which traverse the nation's railways at speeds of up to 70 mph, Pacific Harbor's trains rarely exceed 25 mph. However, Pacific Harbor's specialty -- railroad switching within the port complex -- involves substantial work for crews because of all the starting and stopping, and the resulting idling is a significant source of emissions.

The new locomotives automatically shut down if they are stopped for more than about 15 minutes, and are three times more powerful than the first diesel-electric switch engines introduced in the 1930s, according to Fox, a lifelong train enthusiast.

Paul Withers, publisher of Diesel Era magazine, said Pacific Harbor's decision to renovate its fleet was not surprising.

"In a place like Southern California, where air pollution is such a big deal, the handwriting was on the wall," Withers said. "They'd have to do it eventually. That they took the initiative to do it now is a good example for the industry."

In the meantime, Pacific Harbor's train operators have been breaking in the locomotives that, one conductor said, "take some getting used to."

"They run all right, although they take a little longer to power up than the old diesels," said conductor Jason Bengel.

"On the other hand, I don't see as much smoke coming out of the engines as I used to."

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