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Rail News: Rail Industry Trends

Rail maintains dominant market share of U.S. coal shipments, EIA says


In 2013, electric power plants used 858 million tons of coal, accounting for 93 percent of all coal consumed in the United States. Two-thirds of the coal was transported either completely or in part by rail, according to a "Today in Energy" news brief released yesterday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The balance of the coal was transported primarily by river barges or trucks. The primary mode used by a power plant to receive coal largely is determined by its location and access to a rail system, EIA officials said in the brief. River barge is the most cost-effective method to transport large quantities of coal over long distances, but the modal option is limited to plants located on a suitable river, they said.

"Transporting coal by rail is more expensive, but two related facts result in its dominant market share of transportation: first, the United States is covered by an extensive railway network," EIA officials said. "Second, coal is produced in a relatively few parts of the country — predominantly in the Powder River Basin, Illinois Basin, and Central and Northern Appalachia — while it is consumed by power plants in 46 of the 48 contiguous states."

Rail's dominance hasn't changed in recent years, only fluctuating slightly at times due to changes in plant operators' coal supply requirements. Although coal consumption in the electric power sector decreased 18 percent from 2008 to 2013, and the number of coal-fired generators dropped from 1,445 to 1,285 units during that same period, the share of shipments made either exclusively by rail or with rail as the primary mode remained effectively unchanged, EIA officials said.

Between 2008 and 2013, the share of coal shipments handled by river barges increased from 7 percent to 12 percent, while truck shipments fell from 12 percent to 10 percent.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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