Coal Trains…. At The Crossroads?

Norfolk-Southern-Coal-Train-10-4-2015 (1)

Coal trains like this one @ Binghamton, NY’s Bevier Street Yard may become a rarity as America gears up for possible changes in energy production.


Since the earliest days of railroading coal has been the lifeblood for many rail lines, and to this day, is the quintessential essence of heavy railroading. Just seeing a unit coal train conjures up romantic visions of Appalachian roads like the Baltimore & Ohio, the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Norfolk & Western, Louisville & Nashville, Interstate and the Clinchield.

In the Northeast anthracite roads like the Lehigh Valley, Reading and the great Pennsylvania Railroad reigned supreme as the hard coal carriers of the region.

But for the first time on a national scale, coal is dying…. And it’s not just the EPA’s war on fossil fuels either…. Many power plants that for decades burned only coal are now experimenting with natural gas in addition to, or even as a replacement, for coal.

One such plant is Talen Energy‘s ex-PPL power plant in Washingtonville, Pa. If green lighted, Talen Energy would spend an estimated 100 million dollars on the conversion which would enable the plant to use coal and natural gas.

From a railfan perspective, TE wouldn’t spend this kind of money to have a dual fuel source and not use it. So if (when) the change takes place, the Norfolk Southern coal traffic to Strawberry Ridge on theĀ Watsontown Secondary (which currently has around 600+ incoming coal loads and 600+ outgoing empties a week) could be greatly reduced and even eventually end. And we’re only talking about central Pa..


Map taken from

NS is planning to abandon a section of its Princeton-Deepwater District between Elmore and Princeton in West Virginia. The reason…. Declining coal traffic.

The famed 50-mile route was once the center of the Virginian Railway‘s electrified operations and features multiple viaducts, tunnels and a mountainous grade that’s home to some of the heaviest tonnage railroading in the nation. 18,000-20,000 ton trains being the norm.

The line also hosts famous photo locations such as those seen at Garwood Trestle, Clarks Gap, Matoaka, Princeton and Kellysville.

When the abandonment is complete all trains to and from Elmore will be routed via Gilbert.

The closing of this line is just the tip of the iceberg as coal traffic on the nation’s railroads has decreased from 2014…. We’ll just have to wait and see how it all eventually plays out.

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Author:Railfan AC

AC is a U.S. Air Force Veteran, a long haul trucker, a transportation enthusiast and a lifelong lover of trains. AC's mission is to travel America documenting American railroading in the 21st century while educating those who want to know about the importance the railroads play in our daily lives including, but not limited to, the movement of goods, services and more.

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