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.
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. Thanks in part to innovative service solutions and ongoing investments, railroads continue to provide efficient and cost-effective transportation to coal shippers throughout the country. In 2021 alone, U.S. railroads moved 3.3 million carloads of coal, with each rail car carrying enough coal to power 19 homes for an entire year.
Today, the vast majority of coal is used to generate electricity. It is also is used to produce coke and for other industrial purposes. U.S. coal is also exported to markets abroad. In the past few years, U.S. coal exports have been equivalent to around 14% of U.S. coal production, more than double the percentage of ten years ago.