Where’s the Beef? Amtrak’s Putting It in the Engine!

OK, so the pun on “cattle car” was already taken. Amtrak has started testing a locomotive run on biodiesel made from beef tallow on trips from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City, the rail operator recently announced.

The B20 fuel mixes 20 percent beef biodiesel with 80 percent regular diesel. According to earlier tests run by Amtrak, the fuel mixture reduced hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide each by 10 percent, and reduced particulates by 15 percent and sulfates by 20 percent.

The trains run along the Heartland Flyer route.

If you’re wondering why, of all the different types of biodiesel Amtrak could have used in their trains they chose dead animal diesel, the reason is that beef tallow is the biomass available in the area in which the Heartland Flyer operates, according to Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesperson. “We asked our local fuel provider for a bio-based product,” he said. “There was not a lot of corn and soy based product [but] there is a lot of cattle production in that area.”

“The fact it’s coming from this biomass, it’s strictly a function of where in the country this is going on.”

Amtrak created the project with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation using a $274,000 grant from the Federal Railroad Administration. The biodiesel blend comes from a Texas-based vendor.

The locomotive has been specially outfitted to measure what effect the biodiesel has on the engine. If the trial is successful Amtrak might consider expanding the use of biodiesel in its trains nationwide, Magliari said.

Criticism from PeTA

If the idea of chugging along in a train run on beef fat sounds a little gross (I immediately imagined a train sliding down rails greased with animal fat), you’re not alone. Bruce Friedrich, VP for policy at PeTA said “using animals’ tortured corpses to power trains is not an environmentally friendly choice,” explaining:

Corn biodiesel is 20 times as efficient as animal corpse biodesiel, since for animal fat biodeisel, you have to feed vast quantities of corn to the animals first; why not just convert the corn directly to biodiesel, rather than feeding it to cattle and wasting the vast majority of it?

PeTA once compared slaughtering animals for food to the Holocaust. A similar analogy, on many levels, could be made here, if PeTA so wished (I’m not going to spell out the connection, either you get it or you don’t).

Amtrak, for its part, explained its decision to use animal-derived biodiesel for the reasons stated above. As for why it chose the Heartland Flyer for a test run of biodiesel, Magliari said the route is ideal for a trial run of alternative fuel because it is largely self-contained, unlike, say, a route running in and out of Chicago, which might require switching trains.

Still, as an attempt to improve its “green” image, this particular project might amount to a “net zero impact” for Amtrak — from a PR standpoint.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

5 responses

  1. I agree with Peta, beef is not green as we all know by now, besides all the animal welfare issues attached to it. Not a good idea that should be dropped by Amtrak.

  2. Farmers use fuel to plant and harvest corn, corn is then shipped using fuel to the cattle ranch, cows put out methane their whole lives which is way worse than CO2, cows get shipped around and processed using even more fuel, then finally the cows get used as fuel by trains.
    This is state-funded greenwashing at best.

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