Jan 31, 2002
If you model Conrail during the 1990s, then you definitely need at least one unit coal train. Below you will find a brief overview of how and why unit coal trains became such an important part of Conrail's success. You'll also learn how to replicate these operations on your own layout.
During the peak energy periods of winter and summer, many large utilities demand high volumes of coal. At one time, utilities typically stockpiled three month's supply of coal outside their plants. This protected them from experiencing shortages during unexpected high usage periods such as heat waves or cold snaps, plus gave them a ready supply during other times of the year. But in order to improve their profits by reducing their overhead, utilities no longer practice stockpiling. Instead, they rely on unit frequent coal trains that operate on tighter schedules. Whereas in the past coal trains might have visited a utility every couple of weeks, such trains now may run two or three times a week depending on the season.
Plus utilities now demand cleaner burning coal with lower sulfur content and higher burning abilities. A great deal of this coal comes from the old Conrail lines in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In fact, the nation's largest underground reserves of this high-efficiency coal is located along Conrail's old Monongahela Line. This line became crucial to Conrail's success after they purchased the Monongahela Railroad in 1993. The line will also play a major role for Norfolk Southern in the years to come. But it's Conrail's operations of this line and the entire region during the 1990s that this article concentrates on.
Since coal was no longer stockpiled during the 1990s, strict loading, transporting, and unloading schedules were put into place. A coal train that was late to a utility during a peak usage period could result in brownouts and other problems for large metropolitan regions. Large utilities generally received their coal via unit Coalporter trains since Coalporters had greater capacity than traditional hoppers, plus Coalporters could be unloaded much quicker since they needed rotary dumpers to literally turn the car on its side and dump out the coal. Smaller utilities, on the other hand, must rely on traditional bottom-discharge hoppers and trestles. Of course, this is only a rule-of-thumb! For more information and photos on Coalporters, see the Coalporter section.
Conrail unit coal trains came in four general car lengths, and only when running empty was this reflected in the train's symbol. The four set lengths were 75, 90, 105, and 130 cars. If the length varied from these numbers, the train was then assigned a value of 'E' for 'exceptional' when returning empty. The most common lengths seemed to be around 90 and 105, though in the summer of 1997 I saw a 150 car loaded unit coal train at CP Wyomissing Jct in PA. It felt like it would never end! Of course the engines were strained to the max.
Nearly any class of locomotive could be found leading Conrail's unit coal trains. While six-axle locomotives were typical, four-axle units could also be found from time to time. During the 1970s, the power of choice in the Pennsylvania coal fields was often the then-new SD-40-2's. As the 1980s progressed, SD-50's, SD-60's, and C40-8W's often replaced the aging SD-40-2's. As the 1990s ended, pairs of mighty SD-80MAC's could often be found leading lengthy coal drags across Pennsylvania.
Back in the early days of Conrail, a mainline train on its way between their origination and destination would often set off a string of loaded hoppers destined for a local utility. A local train would then come out, pick up the hoppers, transport them to the utility, switch the utility's small yard, pick up any empties, then return the empties to either a local yard or another siding where yet another mainline train would pick up the empties for the return trip to the mine.
But with the introduction of the unit coal train and the demise of stockpiling, this lengthy process ended. A typical scenario in the 1990s would have been for a loaded unit coal train, such as UMR, to begin at either a mine or terminal such as Cresson in western Pennsylvania. The train would then progress eastward until it reached Metropolitan Edison's Titus plant outside Reading, PA. There the crew would set off the loads on the appropriate tracks, pick up any empties, possibly turn the engines so they faced westward, change train symbols to an 'X' to reflect their empty status, then return back to the mine or terminal. Often the crew could not complete the entire operation in one day, thereby having to take the empty train back the next day.
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