While electric trains have been in use for decades now, especially in Japan where the shinkansen [bullet trains] has become a symbol of that country’s technological prowess in transportation, three veterans of Elon Musk’s SpaceX program are set to change the future of the American freight train system.
Working from Los Angeles, their initiative aims to replace today’s massive diesel-powered locomotives with more efficient battery-powered trains that can optimize the capacity of rail lines throughout the country.
Parallel Systems recently shared its concept for smaller, more flexible, zero-emission trains that will pull 50 boxcars or less while operating at a far greater frequency than conventional locomotives.
According to its CEO Matt Soule, freighting cargo through the railway system has always been more energy-efficient than freighting it using trucks cross-country. Given the current global push for decarbonization, maximizing the use of freight trains is already a step in the right direction. But Soule added that what his company aimed to do was to reduce the freight industry’s overall carbon footprint even lower through the electrification of freight railways.
Also, there are currently 140,000 miles of existing freight rail track networked across the US, and ferrying cargo across them means being able to hold more weight than the legal limit of 80,000 pounds for cargo trucks.
A More Fuel-Efficient and Eco-Savvy Freight Solution
Rather than concentrating the train’s power in a single engine, Parallel’s infrastructure calls for larger batteries distributed among multiple cars. But unlike the rechargeable batteries commonly used in road-specific electric vehicles, the batteries for Parallel’s trains will be less expensive to produce and are less energy-dense. These will also be a quarter of the size of the Semi battery used in most Tesla models available. Yet, these batteries will be able to propel a train 500 miles on a single charge.
The trains can work within the existing US freight rail system thanks to the introduction of Positive Train Control technology, a safety measure that prevents train collisions, high-speed derailments, or technical issues if track switches are in the wrong position.
However, commercial use of Parallel Systems’ technology is dependent on which railroads it will partner with, as well as the overall approval of the Federal Railroad Administration following a series of safety tests and validation.
The company’s innovative railway solutions have gained the interest of numerous technology-focused venture capital firms. Among those who participated in Parallel’s most recent funding round are Anthos Capital, Congruent Ventures, Embark Ventures, and Riot Ventures. The funding round raised $49.6 million which will be used to refine the company’s current prototypes and operating software.