by Otto Vondrak
BOOK REVIEW: "Coal Trains" by Brian Solomon and Patrick Yough
Once again, prolific railroad author and photographer Brian Solomon takes a look at the railroad industry to bring us a review of how those "black diamonds" get from mine to market. Teaming up with friend Patrick Yough, "Coal Trains" sets to document "The History of Railroading and Coal in the United States." This book does exactly that.
The book provides a very accessible text explaining the source of the coal industry in America. The earliest railways of the 1830s hauled coal to fueld the Industrial Revolution, and in the twentieth century to fuel our increasing appetite for electrical power. Our authors walk us through the development of the mining industry and the related innovations in railroading, from early open top hoppers, to the development of unit trains, aluminum hoppers, and rotary dumpers. "This book covers many elements of coal train operation over the years, from the formative anthracite haulers in Pennsylvania to the latest developments in Appalachian coal country and Wyoming's Powder River Basin," the authors explain. Their intent is not to document every coal-hauling line in America, but "to capture the flavor, spirit, and history of coal train operation in the United States."
Chapter 1 outlines the development of the eastern Anthracite haulers. From the earliest canals and gravity railways, the fortunes of the northeast have been tied to Anthracite mining. In the post Civil War era, the demand for coal grew, and the iron industry was succeeded by the steel industry. This gave rise to the so-called "Anthracite Roads," such as the Reading, the Lehigh Valley, the Lackwanna, the Erie, the NYO&W, and the Jersey Central. The collapse of the Anthracite market in the post-WW II era led also to the decline of these roads and the need for reorganization in the 1970s.
Chapter 2 brings us into Appalachian bituminous country. The B&O was the early entrant into this market, reaching the rich coal deposits of Cumberland, Maryland by 1842. Soon, the B&O would be joined by the Western Maryland, the C&O, the Norfolk & Western, the Virginian, and the Pennsy. In the later half of the twentieth century, the market shifted from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, and with it, the fortunes of those area railroads.
Chapter 3 takes us through the development of the modern Appalachian bituminous region. As traffic shifted to new markets, old names combined under new banners starting in the 1960s as the N&W joined forces with Virginian, Wabash and Nickel Plate. The Clinchfield would later join up with long time partners L&N and ACL. Seaboard System and Chessie System would later form CSX, while N&W and Southern circled the wagons to form Norfolk Southern. Riding a wave of profit from export coal, this important market began to fade in the 1990s. We learn just how much the eastern railroads depended on coal, and how it affected their business decisions through the end of the century, and the appearance of more and more Powder River coal coming East.
Chapter 4 brings us to the Illinois Basin, covering western Kentucky, and southern Indiana and Illinois. This area was well served by the Illinois Central, the CB&Q, the GM&O, the C&EI, the Monon, and even MoPac and Milwaukee Road. The Clean Air Act of the 1970s greatly reduced demand for coal from this source, and traffic patterns again shifted. Surprisingly, much of the coal mined in this area is shipped by barge on inland canals. New smokestack "scrubber" technology has resulted in a resurgance in demand for Illinois Basin coal, today carried by CN/IC, BNSF, and a host of regionals and shortlines.
Chapter 5 takes us out west to the famed Powder River Basin, what Trains magazine once called "the last railroad frontier." Probably one of the most interesting modern industry stories, PRB traffic wasn't even a blip on the map until the 1970s. Several events including the BN merger and the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Staggers Act of 1980 all helped set the wheels in motion to make the PRB one of the densest modern rail freight corridors today. The authors walk us through the development of the PRB market, coupled with BN's and CN&Ws competing applications to build new routes to serve these mines in the 1970s. A stringent re-write of the Clean Air Act led even more utilities to demand the low-fulfur PRB coal, leading to even more traffic and expansion through the 1990s.
Chapter 6 heads into the Unitah Basin in eastern Utah and western Colorado. Long the domain of the Rio Grande, this area has the greatest fluctuation in market. Unitah coal is highly desirable from an energy standpoint, yet difficulty in mining and higher transportation costs tend to hurt the market. Colorado coal experienced a boom in the 1970s coupled with the Energy Crisis, but leveled off in the 1980s with the rise of PRB. In 1996, UP had integrated the old Rio Grande operations and continues to serve the area to this day as the dominant carrier. Also discussed are the Utah Railway and the isolated Black Mesa & Lake Powell electrified line.
If you have an interest in the American coal industry as it is tied to the railroads, you'll want this on your bookshelf. Even if you have a passing interest in coal trains and their operation, you'll find this book highly accessible. I had the pleasure to draw a few maps to complement the book, I would have gladly drawn a few more (I wish there were maps for the Appalachians, Illinois, and Unitah regions). The book is well illustrated, from classic black and whites to sharp vibrant color from many well-known photographers. Pat Yough works in the energy industry, and offers a behind the scene look at mining operations, power generation, and how legislation has affected the market over the years. You learn that there's a lot more to coal trains than getting these black rocks out of the earth and to market. Why they get loaded up in the first place has as much to do with where they're going and how they got there.
Available from Motorbooks/Voyageur Press, $37.00 retail. 169 pages, harbound.
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