MBI's Moving Stories

RAIL

The Move from Fossil Fuel Plants to Renewable

2019 Volume I, Issue I

As US energy providers move from fossil fuel plants to renewables, it’s causing a dramatic effect on railroads large and small.

One small one in Arizona turned a wheel for the final time last year, and a second one in nearby New Mexico is expected to close in late April. Both railroads did relatively short hauls of high-grade steam coal to nearby power plants.

In Arizona, the Black Mesa & Lake Powell was unique, an electrified 78-mile isolated line, not connected to the rest of the railroad world, hauling coal from Peabody Coal Company’s Kayenta Mine on the Navajo Reservation, to the Navajo Generating Station near Page. Operating on a modern 50kv system, the line was built in the 1970s and was owned by the consortium of utilities that owned and operated the power plant. BM&LP delivered the last load of coal to the power plant in August, 2019. Currently the power plant is being dismantled and the railroad’s electrical distribution system is being scrapped. For now, the rails and ties of this relatively modern railroad are intact as Navajo tribal leaders and others study future uses for the railroad.
A southbound Escalante Western Railway coal train makes a little-known crossing of the Continental Divide as it leaves Peabody Energy’s El Segundo Mine in western New Mexico, bound for the Escalante Generating Station, 40 miles south, which is scheduled to close in early summer. It’s expected the Escalante Western will run it’s last train in late April.

In western New Mexico, the planned shutdown of a coal-fired power plant near Prewitt spells the end of operation for the relatively new (1985) 40 mile-long Escalante Western Railway, a common carrier owned by the Western Fuels Association to feed the soon-be-dormant Escalante Generating Station with coal from a pair of Peabody mines about 40 miles north, in the Star Lake region. There’s no word on the disposition of the locomotives, and the one mine that remains still serves customers via BNSF connection, but it would appear Escalante Western will be another name for the railroad history books by this summer. The electrical utilities that jointly own Tri-State Generating & Transmission Association’s Escalante Generating Station say their power needs will be met by newer, cheaper renewable sources. Government agencies and the Navajo Nation are studying construction of a new railroad line to serve the energy industry in Northwest New Mexico, and one proposal would make use of Escalante Western tracks for part of the route.

A train of empty coal cars on Arizona’s Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad approaches the loadout at Kayenta Mine in northwestern Arizona. The unique electric railroad hauled coal to the Navajo Generating Station at Page. Railroad, mine and power plant ceased operation in 2019.
Coal trains have been a familiar sight in all corners of the country for more than a century, often changing routes as mines play out. This 1977 view shows Southern Illinois coal moving west on the Missouri Pacific Railroad to a generating station near St. Louis. By the mid-1980s, the power plant switched to cleaner, low-sulfur coal moving more than a thousand miles by rail from Wyoming to Missouri.
A trainload of low-sulfur coal from Antelope Mine in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin moves westward along the Yellowstone River near Livingston, Montana, enroute Boardman, Oregon and the Portland General Electric power plant, 170 miles east of Portland. Boardman is scheduled to close later this year.

On mainline railroads, much of the coal that moves across the west originates at mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and moves to generating stations as far away as Washington State, Texas and Missouri. Those trains are also on “borrowed time” as electric utilities bet on natural gas and renewables for their future generation needs. Coal has long been a staple of the railroad freight business. Mines and customers have closed, changed or moved over the years, and it will be interesting to see what happens to iconic coal trains over the next ten years. MBI stands ready to explain it all to the public and other stakeholders in the energy industry.

Coal trains like this one climbing Montana’s Bozeman Pass, have been a part of the western landscape for more than half a century. As power producers switch to cleaner fuels and renewables, this is likely to be a rare sight in the west.