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The Next Generation of Shunting Locomotives Uses Fuel Cell Power

Oct. 6, 2016
Article by Nicolas Pocard

A switcher, shunter, yard pilot, switch engine, shifter or yard goat – all are terms used to describe the same item. Switchers are the rail industry’s equivalent of tugboats. They are job specific: relatively low-powered with high torque requirements intended for assembling trains ready for a road locomotive to take over, disassembling a train that has been brought in, and generally moving rail cars around the yard.

Shunters are designed for getting heavy cars rolling quickly - the process usually known as switching (North America) or shunting (UK).

This activity takes place in classification yards or marshalling yards depending on your particular location on the planet. These rail yards are located near the hearts of most port cities or at the crossroads of major rail distribution hubs. This also happens to be the centre of most cities and adjacent high-density populations.

Diesel-powered shunters have become a point of contention, as residential areas downwind from rail yards tend to have elevated air pollution levels. Zero-emission commuter rail propulsion policies are being adopted in many jurisdictions around the world. This has brought about changes in attitudes towards the use of this equipment and how they need to evolve and embrace new and available technologies. The three propulsion options currently being considered are electric, battery and hydrogen fuel cell. Electric engines are well suited for low power with high torque applications.

The communities’ initial thoughts were to power these shunting locomotives with electricity from the grid. But when the installation cost of electrifying an entire rail yard with overhead catenary infrastructure gets factored in, this solution almost becomes cost prohibitive. Battery power is another consideration, but their systems’ recharging requirements limit the availability of the locomotive significantly thus impacting the locomotive’s on-the-job performance. An option showing real promise is propulsion using hydrogen fuel cells.

How Hydrogen Fuel Cell Systems Work for Locomotive Applications

Fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen. This electricity is stored in batteries or fed directly into a locomotive’s high voltage propulsion system. The shunting locomotives are refuelled with hydrogen using on-site refilling station – the only additional infrastructure element required.ballard-blog4-fuel-cell-shunt-locomotive-layout.png

The fuel cell locomotives replace diesel powered in a one-to-one relationship. The same range and running times for diesel-powered trains apply to their fuel cell replacements, yet they deliver all the propulsion needed without generating carbon emissions or disruptive engine noise. Communities downwind also benefit.


To learn more about zero-emission options to power shunt locomotives, download the white paper.

Photo: Fuel Cell Shunt Locomotive Layout, Ballard Power Systems


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HYDRAIL: Rail Transport

Learn more about Ballard's experience with hydrogen fuel cell-powered trams being demonstrated globally.

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