An Innisfail company has put itself at the head of what could be the next big thing in rail transportation.
Bilton Welding and Manufacturing Ltd. is converting diesel locomotives to hydrogen-powered versions producing zero carbon emissions as part of a collaboration with Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.
Two locomotives have already been completed and work is well underway on the third, a 6,000- to 7,000-horsepower engine designed for long-haul freight trains that is expected to be completed this summer.
Bilton CEO and president Robert Bilton said all three locomotives are significantly different.
“They’ve all been tried out. The early ones proved the design and the technology and the focus on (the third one) is to modularize the design and install so we can ramp up production to do multiples,” Bilton said on Wednesday.
“The equipment will all be built in our shop in modules prior to the engine showing up and then when they show up it should be a relatively quick turnaround to install.”
The most frequent obstacles he has had to contend with have not been technical, but societal.
“The biggest challenges have been getting the world and the province and the country to come to terms with the fact that we will have to transition to more renewable and cleaner energy,” he said. “If there was a big problem, that was it.
Bilton knew many years ago that we were going to have to find another energy source besides fossil fuels.
“My biggest frustration was no one was willing to,” he said. “I made the decision early on, probably about 2010, that we needed to start making the transition, regardless of whether anyone else agreed with us.”
It was not easy at times. The capital, grants and other government support available now did not exist. But the effort paid off.
“It helped us get ahead. So, we’re further ahead than most companies in our experience and ability to deal with alternative energy sources, whether it be electricity or lithium batteries or hydrogen.”
Bilton credits CP for its forward-thinking and environmentally conscious decision-making that led to the Hydrogen Locomotive Program.
CP Rail announced in 2020 that it would design and build North America’s first line-haul hydrogen-powered locomotives that use fuel cells and batteries to power the engine’s electric traction engines. To support hydrogen locomotive operations, hydrogen production and fueling facilities will be installed at CP rail yards in Calgary and Edmonton.
“Once the decision was made by a company like CP that this was the direction they were wanting to go, we and others in Alberta have plenty of human capital and manual and physical resources to be able to do this type of work.
“It really was just a matter of ‘Let’s do it.’ It is a fairly straightforward process. The technology is not beyond us at all to do this type of work.”
Bilton is optimistic that the work his company and CP are doing now could lead rail companies to switch their diesel-electric locomotives to hydrogen-powered models.
“The tests that have been done have proven its very, very viable and possibly will actually run at a lower cost than diesel engines. So, I’m highly confident there is a great opportunity here.”
There will be obstacles to overcome. When the first cars hit the road, gas stations were few and far between he offers as an example. Likewise, a network of hydrogen fueling locations will need to be created.
“But other than that — which isn’t insurmountable by any means — I don’t really see any reasons for a holdup.”
Besides hydrogen’s benefit of being a clean energy source — the only emissions created are water vapour — the gas has many other advantages, he said. It is lighter than air, so if there is a spill it rises, and mixes with oxygen in the atmosphere to become water.
“In a lot of ways, it’s much easier (to work with) than so many of the environmentally challenging fluids and gases we’ve had to deal with in Alberta for the last hundred years.”
Bilton said he is grateful for the support shown by the Town of Innisfail and its council, which helped the project by approving an important rail spur to the company’s facilities.