Region Forward Blog

New Amtrak Switcher Latest Project to Further Clean D.C. Region's Air

Apr 24, 2014
Phil Mendelson Vincent Gray Chuck Bean Jeff King Leah Boggs and David Snyder


When people think about things that add to air pollution power plants and large vehicles they see on the road may come to mind first. But off the road and often out of sight there are other significant sources too.

At Union Station in the District of Columbia older switcher locomotives are equipped with one large diesel engine that idles continuously during the day when not in service. These switchers which provide the vital task of moving trains around the rail yard emit 125 tons of emissions per year including pollutants that cause ozone and fine particle pollution.

A few years ago the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLE-T) identified an opportunity to upgrade some of the switchers to protect public health and modernize the rail equipment with new technology. BLE-T approached the Council of Governments which had experience managing other off-road diesel repower projects to put together a proposal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

EPA selected the proposal and its Diesel Emissions Reduction Act funding sparked the project to upgrade two switchers with greener more energy-efficient engines. COG served as the project administrator and selected National Railway Equipment Co. in Dixmoor IL to perform the engine repowers. Amtrak as owner of the equipment provided 25 percent matching funds. The Amtrak-BLE-T-COG partnership was further supported by the NoMa Bid and District Department of the Environment as stakeholders concerned with neighborhood development and air quality.

Above: Weather Channel Features the New Locomotive

Earth Day Unveiling—Benefits to Region

On Earth Day April 22 2014 area leaders gathered at Union Station to unveil the first of the repowered locomotives. According to Amtrak the new Generator Set “GenSet” locomotives have two or three smaller independently controlled engines that run more efficiently and shut down when not in use. The GenSet switchers will use approximately 50 percent less fuel and produce 50 to 90 percent fewer emissions depending on the specific pollutant and engine use. Officials stressed how the improved air quality will benefit 1400 rail employees 34 million travelers and residents throughout the D.C. metropolitan region.

“It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in the fight against air pollution. As late as the 1980s smog and haze blanketed this area in the summer” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson who serves as the Chairman of the COG Board of Directors. In 1988 nearly half of summer days exceeded the EPA’s ozone pollution standard. High concentrations of ozone can cause a variety of health issues like shortness of breath coughing fatigue and chest pain. Mendelson went on to say that through our regional plans and actions as well as actions at the federal and state levels metropolitan Washington’s air quality has improved significantly.

“In 2013 our region experienced only four unhealthy air quality days—four were Code Orange and none were Code Red days” Mendelson told the audience at the unveiling. He noted new regulations have reduced emissions from power plants and passenger vehicles more governments and businesses have embraced energy efficiency and renewables and initiatives like the switcher project are reducing diesel emissions.

Eleanor Holmes Norton at Amtrak Switcher Unveiling

Eleanor Holmes Norton at Amtrak Switcher Unveiling

Mayor Vincent Gray said the switcher project was the type of green initiative helping move the Sustainable DC initiative forward to make the District the nation’s greenest healthiest most livable city. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and David Snyder Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee Chairman and Falls Church Vice Mayor noted the breadth of the players involved in the partnership– labor management a regional council a BID—and praised their ability to deliver an important new product that would benefit the entire region.

The Amtrak switcher is the latest in a series of projects to reduce diesel emissions and clean the region’s air. In recent years COG has focused on identifying old polluting engines and equipment and helping owners find more sustainable solutions. This work has included engine upgrades of construction equipment and tour boats and installation of particulate filters at landfills. While many of these projects affect behind-the-scenes equipment—like the switcher locomotives—the environmental and public health benefits of cleaner engines will be enjoyed by workers nearby communities and residents throughout the region.

For additional photos click here for our Flickr page.

Project partners pose in front of switcher ‘Ella': Herbert Harris Jr. (BLE-T) Larry Gurganus (NRE) Celia Pfleckl w/ daughter Ella (Amtrak) Dave Warner (Amtrak) Fritz Edler (BLE-T) Jeff King (COG) Kurt Bakun (NRE) Ron Trewhella (NRE)

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