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Battery-powered locomotives hit the rails

Illustration of a locomotive made from a huge battery.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

U.S. Steel Corp. and Australian mining company Roy Hill have each unveiled battery-powered locomotives to decarbonize their freight operations.

State of play: Battery-powered rail is a niche climate investment, but one drawing the attention — and checkbooks — of multinational giants.

Context: Freight trains largely rely on diesel engines, which are pretty efficient when it comes to overall emissions compared with alternatives like semitrucks.

  • But the local impact from the fumes does leave a mark.

Driving the news: U.S. Steel last month unveiled two locomotives it converted to battery-powered models in a nearly $7 million effort.

  • The engines will haul steel, coke and scrap metal around the company's Clairton Coke Works outside Pittsburgh.
  • U.S. Steel invested $2.3 million in the project with Innovation Rail Technologies. Pennsylvania put up another $4.5 million.

Meanwhile, Roy Hill and Hancock Prospecting debuted their FLXdrive battery locomotive, which they say will be the first wholly battery-powered locomotive for mainline service.

  • The engine, built by Pittsburgh-based Wabtec, will be paired with diesel locomotives hauling iron ore along a 1.5-mile route in Australia.

Be smart: "This is a special and unique case," Enrique Glotzer, a managing director in FTI Consulting's Power, Renewables & Energy Transition practice, tells Axios.

  • Batteries just don't have the energy density for long-haul rail.

Yes, but: The tech can cut local pollution while achieving climate impacts at the margins — and perhaps help meet corporate decarbonization mandates.

  • "I would suspect the route timing can be very predictable allowing the required charging to not be disruptive to the operations," Lucas Martin, a partner at Bain & Company, says.
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