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U.S. railroads help stack up coal stockpiles
The winter season is in full swing and electric utilities are well prepared; as of press time, year-end inventories were expected to hit their highest level in four years, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said last month. The mounting stockpiles are due in large part to U.S. railroads, which deliver more than 70 percent of utilities’ coal.
Through 2006’s first 48 weeks, coal shipments were up 4.5 percent compared with the same 2005 period, according to Association of American Railroad’s (AAR) data.
“Railroads are spending record sums to expand capacity and improve service to coal shippers,” said AAR President and Chief Executive Officer Edward Hamberger in a Dec. 5 statement. “As a result, we expect to move more coal than ever before this year in order to keep pace with the demand from electric utilities.”
For their part, the two largest coal-carrying Class Is are making sure they keep up with that demand. In November, Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway Co. loaded a record average of 67.1 trains per day on their jointly owned Powder River Basin (PRB) line, beating the previous monthly record of 66.5 trains per day set in June 2006.
Keeping busy in the PRB
For the week ended Dec. 3, BNSF’s average daily PRB train loadings totaled 49.3 compared with 44.3 trains per day during the same 2005 week. Year-to-date through Dec. 3, BNSF had loaded 264.3 million tons of coal system-wide, up 10.4 percent compared with 2005, and a total daily average of 49.5 trains per day in the PRB, up 10 percent compared with data from the same 2005 period.
UP also is setting records. In November, the Class I moved an all-time-high 20 million tons of coal from the PRB, as well as mines in Colorado and Utah, an 8 percent increase compared with November 2005’s total. The railroad loaded an average of 35.7 trains per day in the PRB last month, its third-highest daily average. In Colorado and Utah, UP loaded an average of 11.6 trains per day.
Whether or not railroads continue setting coal-carrying records this year remains to be seen. In 2007, EIA expects domestic coal production to drop slightly because of the ample stockpiles, but inventories to rise to 138.9 million tons compared with the projected inventory of 109.3 million tons at 2006’s end.