Key Takeaways

  • Coal remains an important commodity for railroads. Trains haul nearly 70% of U.S. coal to its destination — enough to power 78% of American homes.
  • Approximately 8% of U.S. coal is exported to Europe, China and India, more than double the amount exported in 2007.
  • In 2016, U.S. Class I railroads originated 4.4 million carloads of coal (15.9% of total carloads) carrying 513 million tons (34.2% of total tons) and earning gross revenue of 10.2 billion (15.6% of total revenue).

Historically, coal has been the single most important commodity carried by U.S. railroads.

In recent years, technological advances in natural gas extraction and greater reliance on renewables like wind and solar have led to a sharp decline in coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation — resulting in a precipitous drop in the amount of coal moved by railroads.

Despite this decline, coal remains an important commodity for railroads and for the broader economy. In 2016, U.S. railroads originated 4.4 million carloads of coal, with each rail car carrying enough coal to power 21 homes for an entire year. In fact, railroads haul nearly 70% of U.S. coal to its destination — enough to power 78% of American homes.

Just five states account for nearly 70% of U.S. coal production, but coal is consumed all over the country — a feat made possible by freight railroads. Innovative service and aggressive investment programs have enabled railroads to provide efficient and cost-effective transportation to coal shippers throughout the country.

Today, the vast majority of coal is used to generate electricity. It is also used in steelmaking, cement manufacturing and other industrial applications. U.S. coal is also exported to markets abroad. Approximately 8% of U.S. coal is exported to Europe, China and India, more than double the amount exported in 2007.