Rail coal volumes have declined in recent years, but coal remains a crucial commodity for U.S. freight railroads. In 2016, coal accounted for 31.6% of originated tonnage for U.S. Class I railroads, far more than any other commodity. Coal also accounted for 13.9% of rail revenue in 2016, behind only intermodal and chemicals. Most coal in the United States is consumed at power plants, and approximately 70% of that coal is delivered by rail. In recent years, coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation has fallen sharply, leading to sharp declines in rail coal carloads as well.
Looking ahead, coal will continue to play a major role in U.S. electricity markets, with the extent of that role determined by various market forces (especially the price of natural gas) combined with political forces related to environmental issues. Railroads will continue to haul large quantities of coal safely, efficiently, and reliably.