M&ET goes loco for green engines

The Modesto & Empire Traction Co. is being called the "greenest" short-line railroad in North America because it has replaced all its old locomotives with energy-efficient engines that spew far less toxins into the air.

The century-old, locally owned railroad is completing the purchase of five new "ultra clean" locomotives, funded largely by a $6.7 million state grant. Until those new U.S.-made locomotives arrive next year, the M&ET is leasing five low-polluting engines, which went into service this winter.

"We retired all of our old stinkers made in the 1940s and 1950s," said Joe Mackil, the M&ET's president and chief executive officer. "The old ones just belched the junk out. These new things are very clean."

The switch will make a difference in air quality, which is what persuaded the state to pay for the replacements, explained Todd DeYoung, program manager for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

"They're going to be a direct benefit to air quality, and the impacts will be immediate. The benefits will be realized locally," De-Young said. He is convinced that Californians will get the best bang for their buck by buying these locomotives. "It's very cost-effective in terms of the emission reductions we'll get."

Each of the five new locomotives costs about $1.5 million, of which $1.35 million will come from the state's Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program. The M&ET will cover the rest of the price tag, and it is paying to lease similarly low-polluting locomotives until the new ones arrive next year.

The railroad's 16 engineers are thrilled by the modernization.

"The old locomotives, with all the heat, exhaust fumes and noise they created, were not a friendly environment to work in," said Ron "Pete" Peterson, the M&ET's manager of safety and training. "They were very rugged. (The cabs) got cold in the winter and very hot in the summer."

Peterson said some of the old engines were "like driving a Model A," while he equated the new locomotives to a Lexus.

"They're a lot easier to operate," Peterson said. "The computer brings on only the power we need, and it turns off what we don't need."

Like 'a buckboard down a dirt road'

The old locomotives required very skilled engineers to maneuver through Modesto's 2,000-acre Beard Industrial District, where the M&ET hauls products to and from about 65 companies, including E.&J. Gallo Winery, Frito-Lay and Del Monte.

That requires lots of starting and stopping. Peterson said the old locomotives were slippery on the tracks, but the new ones operate "like a cat clawing up a tree."

The new locomotives also are easier on the tracks, compared with some of the 1940s-vintage models that had been in use.

"That old one rides like a buckboard down a dirt road," Peterson recalled. "These new engines feel like they float."

Besides their precise handling and smooth ride, what makes the new R.J. Corman RailPower 2,000-horsepower diesel genset locomotives so special is their energy-efficient design.

"They are the cleanest technology available in diesel engines right now," DeYoung said.

They pollute less because the locomotives can turn on or off each of their three engines, depending on need. If a 100-car grain train is being hauled, all three engines are activated. But when the train pauses, two of those engines automatically shut down.

"That saves them a ton of fuel. The less fuel used, the less greenhouse gases," said Connie Nordhues, Rail- Power's national salesperson.

Pollution elements slashed

Compared with the old locomotives the M&ET had used through last fall, Nordhues said the new ones reduce particulate matter emissions by 90 percent and oxide of nitrogen emissions by 80 percent. Those two elements cause air pollution, which is linked to health problems including asthma and cancer.

The "M&ET's entire fleet of locomotives now is the cleanest fleet anywhere in the United States and Canada," said Nordhues, whose Pennsylvania-based manufacturing company has started promoting the M&ET's "green" status in railroad trade publications.

That recognition may help the Beard business park attract new companies.

"More and more of our customers are thinking green these days," Mackil said. Potential employers who are concerned about their environmental impact might choose to move to Modesto because of these low-polluting locomotives, he said.

The new engines cost less to operate and maintain, Mackil said, so they reduce the cost of doing business in Modesto.

DeYoung said it's good news for the Northern San Joaquin Valley to get state money to pay for the locomotives: "We're always fighting for the valley's share of statewide funds."

Mackil said the old locomotives "probably are going to be exported to a third-world country where they'll still be useful, or they will be parted out" as replacement parts.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at or 578-2196.