St. Louis tech startup, TugVolt could help make rail shipping safer and more efficient
A St. Louis tech company could help make transporting industrial materials safer and more efficient. By the end of the year, Intramotev will deliver three remote-controlled electric TugVolt rail cars to mining companies that transport manganese, lithium and other earth ore.
TugVolt could help Intramotev’s customers deliver industrial materials from small-town mines to processing facilities quickly so shipments don’t get caught in rail traffic.
Shorter TugVolt trains also would be safer than miles-long freight train, and its battery motors would be better for the environment than diesel-powered locomotives, Intramotev CEO Tim Luchini said.
“Our first deployments for these vehicles are going into mining applications with point-to-point routes,” he said. “You can do that with an electrified TugVolt … and reduce your emissions and extract minerals in an environmentally responsible way.”
The 149-car train carrying hazardous chemicals near East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year was 9,000 feet long and weighed 18,000 tons.
Moving tons of freight on miles-long trains over long distances makes derailments and shipping delays more likely, said Jackson Nickerson, professor emeritus at Washington University’s Olin Business School.
“From a safety standpoint, having a one- or two-load haul is unlikely to cause a lot of problems,” Nickerson said.
Luchini said the TugVolt motors are designed to transport one to five cars with 100 tons of material within 100 miles, which could raise the demand for shipping by rail.
“Somebody that's making plastic injection-molded bumpers might need a car of plastic injection molding pellets one at a time,” he said. “A hundred cars showing up at once is not the answer for them.”
Intramotev’s TugVolt price starts at around $300,000. Luchini said companies that use rail could save money and transport goods safer with the technology by keeping their short-distance freight from being delayed.
A company that only needs to ship one mineral or material at a time may choose trucking, as it is faster and more flexible, Luchini said. However, he said, rail is a cheaper and a more environmentally friendly option.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, trains emit 2% of the total greenhouse gases emitted by the transport of goods and services. Moving more shipping from trucking to freight trains could help reduce greenhouse gases.
“For rail to take advantage of its environmental responsibility, it has to offer what every single one of those customers are getting through trucks,” Luchini said.
Former BNSF locomotive engineer Ed Bauer said TugVolts could help take a lot of trucking traffic off the nation’s highways.
“If one TugVolt can take two or three semis off the road, I think we’ve done a really good thing,” he said.
Advancements in technology in the rail industry worry some workers who fear that railroad companies could cut more jobs, said Ron Kaminkow, president of Railroad Workers United, which represents 9,500 workers.
“There's a place for technology, but I don't think it's a panacea,” Kaminkow said. “And I don't think in many cases that it takes the place of human beings, like live human beings who can make split-second decisions."