On the Right Track: Railroad efficiency made better

EDF Climate Corps fellow | October 25, 2011

By Greg Zielinksi, 2011 EDF Climate Corps fellow at Union Pacific Railroad, MBA Candidate at MIT- Sloan School of Management

After attending the May 2011 EDF Climate Corps fellowship training at MIT Sloan in Boston, I felt prepared to do great things for energy efficiency at my host company, Union Pacific Railroad. Many of the efficiency improvements discussed at the training applied to commercial office spaces, so I was cautiously optimistic that my findings at Union Pacific would fit perfectly with the training I received.

While I did not spend much time in Union Pacific's office buildings, the training did prepare me extremely well for understanding the fundamentals of energy use at Union Pacific's biggest energy consumers: rail yards. My first month at Union Pacific was a crash course in railroad operations. The company operates trains across 23 western states with "Building America" as its vision. My time provided insights on how energy is used on a daily basis in a rail yard, and what effect these systems have on getting trains to and from their final destination on time. In July, we visited a few rail yards in Texas for a closer look at some of these systems:

Air compressors: Not only crucial for daily rail yard operations, but compressors serve a variety of functions:

  1. They provide yard air for brake tests on all cars and locomotives;
  2. Supply air for rail switches and retarders at Union Pacific's hump yards (classification yards with high shunting capacities);
  3. And dispense air for pneumatic tools in mechanical shops.

Bay lighting: Typically, shops on Union Pacific's rail yards are in large, industrial-type facilities. These are lit 24 hours a day, 7 days a week either for employees or for security purposes.

Yard lighting: To make rail yards safer, high powered lighting is necessary at many facilities. With some yards employing over 1000 streetlights, energy demands can approach 1 MW! After visiting North Platte's Bailey Yard in late June, I now understand how lighting carries such a heavy load.

The most rewarding aspect of my work has been the interaction with the employees of Union Pacific. From executives in Omaha, mechanical foremen in Salt Lake City and electricians in Little Rock, everyone had ideas and suggestions for energy efficiency solutions at their yards. All of the ideas I focus on originated from the employees. Some of the suggestions were to:

  • Repair leaky air compressor lines: Some systems are 40 years old, and associated energy costs can be thousands of dollars per year
  •  Install LED Lighting: Union Pacific shops are typically lit by metal halide or high pressure sodium light fixtures. With recent advances in the efficiency and durability of LED lights, this is an easily implemented measure for improving energy efficiency.
  •  Downsize air compressors: Using 50 HP compressors in place of 150 HP units that consume energy at a cost of $40k per year can save up to $20k annually per compressor.

As the summer draws to an end, I will evaluate projects in these areas. It will be nice to help Union Pacific continue to "Build America" more efficiently. My experience as an EDF Climate Corps fellow tells me this company is on the right track.

EDF Climate Corps places specially-trained MBA and MPA students in companies, cities and universities to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.