Rail transport is an effective mode for transporting passengers and large volumes of freight over long distances. While railcars lack the versatility of trucks and are slower than airplanes, the transportation costs are lower and they have a relative energy-efficiency advantage. Several new technological developments and innovations have recently helped successfully the railway industry: computerized train scheduling and routing, upgrading of equipment, terminals and roadbeds, as well as railcar identification systems.
More recently, several major North American railway companies are currently discussing moving from diesel to natural gas – a cataclysmic transition similar to the move decades ago from coal to diesel power. While carriers willing to convert their fleets to natural gas face significant capital costs and continuing risks related to relative fuel prices, availability of (re-)fueling infrastructure, and tax policy, they could derive significant net benefits in operating costs while reducing their environmental impact, according to a 2012 report of The Conference Board of Canada.
In spite of the contradictory claims on the health and environment impacts of natural gas over traditional diesel fuel, due to economic considerations, i.e., rising diesel prices, natural gas appears as an energy source that is a smart move in the battle against global climate change and a good transition step on the road toward low-carbon energy from wind, solar and nuclear power.
In such a case, it is of utter importance to develop tools that will help minimizing the locomotive energy consumptions throughout cruise scheduling, train scheduling and minimization of the locomotive idle times (the time of maximum carbon accumulation + an estimated 6.5% of the rail freight energy).
Past and current studies have focused on:
- Train scheduling and re-rescheduling (optimization and simulation tools)
- Locomotive assignment to locomotives (large scale optimization techniques)
- Deadlock avoidance and detection in the context of a simulation tool
- Energy (diesel vs. natural gas) estimation and minimization