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Energy & Environment

As Demand For Coal Rises, Not Enough Trains Ready To Move It

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Curtis Tate
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A CSX coal train rumbles east through Charleston, West Virginia.

Tens of thousands of tons of coal rumble through West Virginia every day on their way to power plants or export terminals. Coal producers say there’s enough demand for coal right now to ship even more.

Most coal is transported by rail across the country, but there aren’t enough trains to move it.

Anthony Hatch, a veteran rail consultant based in New York, says railroads had little reason to invest in tracks, locomotives, railcars and workers in coal-producing regions.

“The railroads were going to invest less in their coal franchises for the same reasons that power plants were switching to gas,” he said. “Because of the long-term story.”

Hatch says no new coal cars have been built since 2015. Railcars can remain in service for 30 to 50 years.

U.S. coal production, and shipments by rail, peaked in 2008 at more than a billion tons. By 2020, coal production had fallen in half.

After hitting bottom in 2020, coal production went up in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The challenges posed by COVID on top of years of steady decline may have caught railroads off-guard.

Like other industries during the pandemic, railroads have had trouble hiring. Train crews have to go through six to nine months of training. COVID has also sidelined workers at a time when they’re needed.

Companies that ship by rail have complained about delays – and not just for coal.

Railroads may not have long to take advantage of the renewed demand for coal. Past booms have lasted a few years, maybe a decade. But this one? No one really knows for sure.

“There’s debate even among the railroads that are major coal carriers about how long it lasts,” Hatch said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that coal will have another good year.

But it also predicts that coal will be in decline once more during the next several years. Many coal-burning power plants are scheduled to shut down before 2030. They’re becoming more expensive to operate and can’t compete with natural gas and renewables.

Meanwhile, railroads say they want to move more coal.

A spokeswoman for CSX, which operates 2,000 miles of track in West Virginia, says the company is committing more assets and personnel to address the issue.


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