Who carries the coal in 2015

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The slump in coal traffic on railroads is abating a bit, and about time. Loadings through Week 33 of 2015 (last week) showed year-to-date coal declines  (versus last year) of 12 percent at CSX Transportation, 23 percent at Kansas City Southern, 17 percent at Norfolk Southern, and 16 percent at Union Pacific. Only two Class I lines showed year-to-date coal increases, BNSF Railway (up 3% ) and Canadian Pacific (up 7 percent). Still, the skid has knocked a hole in railroad revenues so big that you’d think the business had dried up.

No way has it dried up. A tip of my cap to reporter Jim Levesque of Platt’s, who has mined data filed by railroads with the Surface Transportation Board. The result is what I call a census of railroad coal business as of mid 2015. Here are the numbers, by region and by railroad, for the week ended August 14.

Central Appalachia. 22.2 trains per day loaded, versus an average of 19.8 this year.

Northern Appalachia. 14.2 trains per day loaded. Combined, the Appalachian regions loaded 36.4 trains per day, versus an average of 33.5 this year.

Powder River Basin. 73.1 trains per day loaded, versus an average of 69.3 this year.

Illinois Basin. 9.3 trains per day loaded, versus an average of 9.8 this year.

Utica Basin. 5.4 trains per day loaded.

Now for loadings in the U.S. by railroad. BNSF leads with 50.6 trains loaded per day, of which 48 came from the Powder River Basin. Next, Union Pacific, at 30.7 trains per day, broken down to 25.1 from the Powder River Basin, 5.4 trains from the Utica Basin and 0.2 trains from the Illinois Basin. CSX ranked third at 23.5 trains per day, of which 13.1 trains came from Central Appalachia, 5.6 trains from Northern Appalachia and 4.8 trains from the Illinois Basin. And finally, Norfolk Southern, at 22 trains per day, including 9.1 trains from Central Appalachia, 8.6 trains from Northern Appalachia and 4.3 trains from the Illinois Basin.

The numbers coming from Central Appalachia (think of Kentucky and West Virginia) are truly pathetic. Those states are dying economically, and so are the railroad arteries of CSX and NS that serve them.

But if you add everything together, bad as things are, you still have roughly 127 trains of coal being loaded in the U.S. every day. That still counts for something.—Fred W. Frailey

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