China Coal Now

There are lots of arguments going on whether a coal terminal should be located on the Washington coast and more importantly where it should be located.  While these battles rage BNSF, CN, and CP are moving some coal.  Right now coal is shipping from Decker mine in Wyoming via BNSF through Laurel, Great Falls, and to CP at Coutts AB.  From there trains traverse the CP to Calgary and finally they traverse the CN out to Prince Rupert, BC.  No apologies.  Prince Rupert is open, China is buying, and so there goes the coal.

On my visit to central Montana I caught one of the weekly moves which uses this multiple railroad route.  I came across the train as they were copying a new track warrant a the North Siding Switch Moccasin.  Simultaneous with their departure a thunderstorm arrived adding a bit of drama to a coal train pulling away from a stop.

I really haven’t formed my final opinion on the whole coal port topic.  I’m somewhat of an environmentalist when it comes to burning coal but I also see that it can be burned in a friendly manner.  Will the Chinese be conscious with their use of the resource?  Good question.  Will the fossil fuels burned to move it cause environmental damage here?  Good question.  Will this bring jobs and a valuable export to the U.S.?  Lot’s to weigh on the topic.

Across Willow Creek


With few serious grades to conquer on this routing, the train was powered by 3 AC4400 locomotives.  On the undulating terrain of the Laurel sub it was far from making track speed.  In the scene above the train is crossing Willow Creek between Windham and Stanford where it was creeping along as it climbed the slight grade over the summit between the two towns.  The interesting thing with this photo is in the future this coal could originate in the hills behind this train if plans for a new mine there play out.  That would save at least 3 crew districts and almost two days of transport time if no new export facilities are built.

This is a fun debate to watch and participate in but I’m sure it won’t end soon.  In the mean time this long and slow route will continue to be used until something better materializes.

Another Coal Mine For Montana

Yesterday’s Great Falls Tribune reports that a coal mine is being explored south of Stanford in Judith Basin County.   My mother-in-law and her friend are both excited about this as the prospect of a new big business in the county would bring in more jobs and more tax revenue to the area.  Stanford and many parts of the county could use an infusion of cash to fix up roads and deal with miscellaneous items that have them behind larger cities in the region.  Right now a new industry in the county sounds like a good deal but who knows how it will be received when more serious work starts.

A coal seam appears out of the side of a hill west of Lehigh.

In terms of railroading the article indicates the mine would be south of Stanford.   After going up town my mother-in-law’s friend found out the mine would be near Lehigh.  Lehigh is located a few miles southwest of Windham, MT.  As the article indicates the Great Northern did mine coal at this location and there was a branch from the mainline at Windham.  If you look closely at an aerial view you can clearly see evidence of the branch leaving the main just west of town and heading out towards Lehigh.  There are also some concrete structures still remaining where coal was loaded.

Remnants of the coal operation at Lehigh Montana

With many years of planning and development to go there are many details to work out including where a junction with the Laurel sub would be and the route the line would take.  Just like Signal Peak north of Billings this should be and interesting project to watch.

BNSF 6080 East

This is nothing remarkable.  This is just another of the many coal trains that pass through Vancouver on their way to and from the mines of the Powder River Basin.  Business as usual on the BNSF.

If the Sierra Club has their way this would be an uncommon sight after 2015.  Will Washington become the first coal-free state?  Time will only tell but since coal is a minor player in electricity production in Washington there is certainly a good chance it could disappear in favor of burning natural gas.

BNSF 6080 East

The End of Boardman Coal


A loaded Boardman bound coal train climbs Montana’s Rocky Mountains at Mullan Pass.

I heard on my way to work Friday that PGE is planning to close the Boardman Power Plant by 2020.   PGE has been under tremendous pressure from environmental groups and citizens to close the plant.  Studies of the air quality and health of down winders have brought to light issues with burning coal in eastern Oregon.  In addition PGE faced modifications to the plant to meet updated clean air requirements.  With the effort to clean up the emissions from the plant coming under increasing fire from the public, I think the combination was just too much and PGE decided to cut its losses and move on.

Once the coal plant closes that will mean the end to Boardman bound coal trains.  Generally these trains routed over BNSF from the Powder River Basin mines to Huntley, MRL to Sandpoint, BNSF to Lakeside Jct., and finally down the UP to Boardman.  I think this interesting routing along the coal cars emblazoned with a rose made the Boardman coal trains a railfan favorite.


Back for more coal

Like most railfans I will miss these trains.  On the other hand the environmental side of me is happy to see the polluting plant go.  While I’m happy to jump on the bandwagon to remove the plant, the problem I see is most people don’t realize the energy generated by the plant will still have to come from somewhere.  Just because PGE closes the plant doesn’t mean the demand drops.  It will just have to be satisfied with another source.  With that in mind I really would have preferred PGE to invest in the plant to make it cleaner (and keep the trains!) but I think they were going to be in a position where any plan that kept the plant open would have brought more attention than they really wanted.  In the end PGE’s decision was probably the best for them from a public relations perspective.  I’m curious to watch and see where the replacement energy will come from.  Will it be someplace more environmentally friendly than Boardman?


A loaded Boardman coal train slogs it out with Mullan Pass

On the positive side we still have 10 more years to chase these trains.  At least theoretically we do.  My guess is the plant will not run for 10 more years.  The plant previous had mechanical issues so my feeling is once an alternate source of electricity is located if a mechanical failure occurs that will likely spell the end of Boardman Power Plant and the associated coal trains.  Get your photos while you can.

[tags] train, railroad, railfan photo, photography, PGE, boardman, coal, electricity, burn [/tags]