CSX Corp. and a unit of General Electric (GE) will partner to explore emissions-cutting and efficiency breakthroughs in liquefied natural gas (LNG) technology for locomotives, beginning with a pilot program in 2014, the companies said Wednesday.

“LNG technology has the potential to offer one of the most significant developments in railroading since the transition from steam to diesel in the 1950s,” said CSX CEO Oscar Munoz. “That change took many years to complete and began with a lot of unknowns, and this one is no different.”

GE has been testing low-pressure natural gas technology since this spring and said it is working closely with CSX and other Class 1 partners. Field tests are expected to begin in 2014.

The GE technology allow railroads to use natural gas as a fuel source, reducing emissions and potentially reducing fuel costs while not compromising performance. An Evolution Series locomotive equipped with the NextFuel Natural Gas Retrofit Kit, which enables locomotives to operate with dual fuel capabilities, meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency PA Tier 3 emission standards, the companies said.

CSX will be working over the next few months to develop a test plan and secure regulatory concurrence. “CSX and GE will also work on the continued development of LNG technology for other classes of locomotives to promote gains across a larger portion of the CSX locomotive fleet, and will work closely with key stakeholders and agencies across government to ensure safety, realize environmental and other benefits, and advance LNG deployment,” the companies said.

Earlier this year, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s locomotive unit, BNSF Railway Co., launched a pilot project to test whether LNG might deliver a cleaner, more economic sound than diesel in its freight trains (see Daily GPI, March 8). Using natural gas to fuel locomotives isn’t revolutionary. The former Burlington Northern Railroad system used natural gas locomotives in the 1980s and 1990s. BNSF also tested LNG switch locomotives in Los Angeles until a few years ago when they reached the end of their useful life.

Diesel now powers a 6,900-plus fleet of locomotives that traverses a network of 32,500 route miles across 28 states and two Canadian provinces. Last year diesel fuel on average cost $3.97/gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration. On an equivalent basis, natural gas last year cost about 48 cents at industrial prices.

In June, Canadian National Railway (CN) ordered four LNG tenders from Vancouver, BC-based Westport Innovations Inc.(see Daily GPI, June 6). A tender is a car behind the locomotive that carries the fuel. Westport’s Nicholas Sonntag, executive vice president, said he sees “enormous potential” for using LNG to fuel locomotives, with the tenders serving as the fueling source.

Two years ago CN collaborated with Westport and Gaz Metro Transportation Solutions to test replacing diesel with LNG (see Daily GPI, April 15, 2011). Last fall CN retrofitted two locomotives to run on a mixture of 90% LNG and 10% diesel; the gas is being supplied by Encana Corp. (see Daily GPI, Feb. 1;Oct. 1, 2012). CN also has been working with Caterpiller Inc.’s Electro-Motive Diesel Inc., Westport and Gaz Metro on a longer-term project to explore a state-of-the-art natural gas railway engine and a standardized railway tender.

For the past year Westport has been working with Caterpillar Inc. on the “next generation” of locomotives. The first high pressure direct injection locomotive is to be demonstrated next year. Westport is also collaborating with Inoxcva, which manufactures cryogenic transportation equipment.