A World Without Coal for America’s Railroads? That Possibility is Still A Ways Down the Tracks

Trains Editor Jim Wrinn asked a perceptive question in the March 2017 issue.

On TransportationSpeaking about how railroads are losing unit train loads of revenue because of the decline of coal, Wrinn cited a country western song to pose the question, “how do we live without coal?”

It was a paraphrase from a 1997 song sung by Trisha Yearwood titled How Do I Live.” Wrinn asked the wrong question, though.

A better question comes from the last verse of The Oven Bird, my favorite Robert Frost poem. Is what to make of a diminished thing.

I can understand why Wrinn writes as though coal is about to vanish from the rails.

He has edited numerous articles in recent months about the railroad industry’s loss of coal revenue.

The lead article of the March 2017 issue of Trains observes that coal has been the backbone of railroads since the first loads were hauled in Pennsylvania in the 1840s.

Two survivors in the 21st century descended from coal-heavy railroads and coal kept them prosperous when so many other lines were failing. This includes the Chesapeake & Ohio – the C in CSX – and Norfolk & Western, the first half of the Norfolk Southern name.

In 2008, there were 598 coal-fired power plants in the United States but 212 of them have closed or converted to natural gas. Ninety-four of those closures occurred last year and 41 more are set to burn their last ton of coal this year.

Since 2015, more electricity has been generated by natural gas than by coal. But read the article carefully. There are still 386 power plants burning coal.

The coal used by those plants is not going to be transported from mine to generating plant over the Internet or shifted in large quantities to trucks.

There may be fewer of them, but unit coal trains will continue to polish the rails for the foreseeable future. Coal may be down, but it is not yet out.

Everything I’ve read about railroads and energy markets concludes that although the Trump administration is likely to relax environmental rules pertaining to the use of coal that is unlikely to materially reverse the trend away from using coal to generate electricity.

It is fashionable in some quarters to blame increased environmental regulations for the slide of coal.

There is some truth to that, but there are more economic reasons for the decline of coal as there are regulatory ones and the two are very much intertwined.

I’ve yet to read a single story that has flatly predicted the date when coal will cease to be used as a fuel to generate electricity.

As I read Wrinn’s column I was reminded or an anecdote I read about a family from Corbin, Kentucky, that traveled to Washington to watch Donald J. Trump be inaugurated as the 45th president.

The woman and her husband own a movie theater and times are tough in their hometown. She expressed the hope that Trump will overturn the environmental regulations that she blames for the decline of coal.

In her mind, relaxed environmental regulations will lead to an increase in coal mining which will lead CSX to hire back laid-off workers.

Presumably, that will be good for her theater and the economy of Corbin. If only it comes to pass.

But editor Wrinn is not spinning such scenarios and neither are any of the authors or analysts who have written about coal and the railroads in the past year.

Wrinn is optimistic that railroads will find ways to reinvent themselves because they’ve done it before. They will learn to live without coal, but it will be as a lesser facet of their business not as non-existent part of their franchise.

Coal may be a diminished thing, but it is not – yet — a vanquished thing. Someday it may be gone but we still have a way to go before we get there.

Until then railroads have trying to figure out what to make of a diminished thing that has been so good to them for a long, long time.

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