Photo by Robert Thornton.

At National Railway Equipment Company in south suburban Dixmoor, an old yellow locomotive wheezes into action. The noise makes conversation nearly impossible, and thick plumes of diesel exhaust permeate the air. Thousands of locomotives like this pull millions of tons of freight across the country each day, and in the process cause thousands of premature deaths and myriad other health problems, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, a New Yorkbased nonprofit.

Railroads have long flown under the radar of government regulators and environmental advocates who have focused more on truck and car emissions and other sources of pollution like power plants. But now pressure is increasing on rail companies to reduce their emissions, and a number of technologies are in the works to help them do so. One of these is the N-ViroMotive GenSet, a locomotive that uses three engines instead of one, so when idling or working in a rail yard, it can use only as much power as needed, avoiding unnecessary emissions.

At National Railway’s Dixmoor facility, an engineer fires up a shiny red, white and blue GenSet. This familyowned Illinois company began making GenSets to meet California’s relatively strict emissions standards. Now they are finding a nationwide market. The GenSet contains up to four 700 horsepower engines instead of the one 2,100 horsepower motor, which is typical in switcher or regional haul locomotives. Other “smart” and “green” features further reduce emissions and prevent unnecessary idling.

After an initial burst of smoke, no emissions can be seen or smelled. The noise is much less than the yellow engine. Vice President Jim Wurtz said the GenSet emits about 90 percent less nitrogen oxide and particulate matter and burns about half the fuel of a traditional engine. And at an average of about $1.65 million, it doesn’t cost much more than an overhauled or new traditional engine. In the past three years, the company has sold about 300 of these locomotives, according to Wurtz, and when the economy picks back up, he expects business to boom. Several other companies are using similar technology, though industry officials say National Railway is the clear leader.

Various other clean engine technologies are being rolled out around the country. In September, Norfolk Southern, along with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, unveiled an electric locomotive that runs on roughly 1,000 12-volt batteries instead of diesel. It can be plugged in or recharged while running.

Curbing idling is another important way to reduce emissions. The EPA estimates long-haul locomotives spend 12.5 percent of their time idling, and in-yard switchers 60 percent.

In 2002 and 2003, Chicago was the site of a successful pilot program in anti-idling technology manufactured by the Washington-based Kim Hotstart Company. Locomotives were outfitted with technology to reduce idling in the winter, when their engines are often left running to prevent radiator fluid from freezing and to keep the cab warm. Diesel engines have a hard time starting in cold weather, hence many trucks and other diesel-fueled machines typically leave their engines idling. But the Hotstart technology uses special small engines to keep radiator and lubricating fluids warm so the locomotive doesn’t have to idle.

Wurtz laments the slow pace of change in the railroad industry, but he thinks growing awareness of environmental issues could push new technology over the edge. “This is a sleepy industry,” he said. “We’re just a bunch of gearheads who enjoy putting together locomotives. [GenSet development] wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for California passing stricter standards. Five years later, we have a locomotive that is the world’s leader in [decreased] noise and emissions.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and lecturer in the journalism graduate program at Northwestern University, where she heads the Social Justice & Investigative specialization.