Train transit technology is primed to take a new leap late this month, thanks to the innovations of yet another Thurston County startup, this time in Tenino.
That’s Sygnet Rail Technologies, the company founded by regional rail expert Dave Swanson, on a Tacoma Rail-owned property near the out-of-the-way town.
“Locomotive in a box.”
Meaning, a way for locomotives – the first car pulling the train – to be stripped down to the metal, then retrofitted with new biofuel engines to fit oncoming “Tier 4” emissions regulations coming in 2015. These are a new style of locomotives, ones that can be rebuilt and shipped out in five to 10 days, quicker than anything else in the industry. And, ones that can be tailored to any gauge rail line in the world.
“Everything that makes a locomotive, everything behind the locomotive’s cab, we have integrated into a universal power container,” Swanson explained. “We work our magic, and in the end there’s a locomotive that’s done quickly, is energy-efficient, and can go on any type of rail gauge in the world.”
Swanson’s background is with Tacoma rail giant SEACO. When that company shut down several years ago, he built Sygnet as a way to stay in the rail industry.
He saw that emissions regulations were set to change drastically – thus, the niche for a rail products to cater to the new market.
Now, the “locomotive in a box” is set to roll out at the end of this month at a national industry show in Indianapolis.
“We believe we’ll have some market disruption,” said Swanson. “We’re also working on other projects using natural gas engines instead of diesel, and natural gas hybrids combined with battery technology. Those could be released by the end of this year.”
Glen Rees, business development manager for the Americas at Cummins Northwest Engine Co., worked with Swanson before his Sygnet startup. He, too, saw the oncoming rail industry product niche; now he partners with Swanson on engine design.
“For rail lines such as the White Pass project, companies are looking to modernize the fleet, but couldn’t because nobody makes narrow gauge any more,” he expounded. “Now, that’s one of Sygnet’s projects, taking that locomotive and refurbishing it, installing it with a new Cummings engine.”
Where will Sygnet’s main customer markets be? Rees predicts broad industry interest. Everywhere that the U.S. is requiring rail to convert to biodiesel: public transport, general freight, anything mining-related, and more.
And Swanson isn’t limiting Sygnet to the U.S. Just this year he sealed a deal with EIF Locomotivas in Brazil for locomotives to run in the Sao Paulo Metropolitan Tran company passenger network. And the company is actively seeking contracts with rail lines on other continents.
Still, Puget Sound is the home ground for business, said Swanson.
“Boeing drives a lot of tech here in the Puget Sound region, so we’re a good fit,” he summarized. “Why we’re succeeding is that we just look at things differently, and we’re continually trying to product rail industry technology that’s of economic value, and efficient”
So, with future product demand solidly in place, and customer markets with infinite possibilities, there’s the main question: Why Tenino?
Said Rees, “It is an unusual place, with so much of the rail industry traditionally based in the Midwest, but there are unusual pockets of sales. Sygnet, with the history of Seaco behind it, has a niche market right here, so we’re only expecting the company to grow, and to bring a solid supply base to the area.”