The steep drop in coal usage in the U.S., and slow-down in other countries, has implications for much of the transport system, especially for the rail sector, responsible for moving most of it around in the U.S. In the last post, the initial trends and implications of decreasing coal usage were discussed, in this post we delve deeper into the underlying data.

While spending on freight rail infrastructure is up year-to-year – as well as increases in efficiency due to lighter-weight rail cars – coal exports are down. From a peak in 2012, “... U.S. coal exports to China were just 1.6 million tons [in 2014], a miniscule fraction of China’s coal consumption,” according to a 2015 report by the American Association of Railroads.

Looking at the average transportation cost of coal, it went from 18.71 dollars per ton in 2008 to 21.24 dollars per ton in 2014, an increase of 14%. At the same time, coal traffic has come down year-to-year since a 2008 peak (see full data here).

Putting these numbers together, what do they mean? What do you make of them? (comments welcome below)

Despite decreasing coal usage and associated rail traffic, it is unlikely that passenger rail will gain priority as it has in Europe, here seen in London. Image credit: Macmillan Education.

What we do know, is that coal is a fundamental commodity for the rail sector, and in a 2015 U.S. DOE study, the future of the coal-rail nexus was examined in detail. The report found that while rail is paramount to coal (70% of coal is transported by rail, with 38.8% of rail tonnage being coal), coal itself “only” accounts for 20% of gross revenue (2013), which is certainly substantial, but might suggest increased hauling potential for other goods such as motor vehicles and chemicals.

It is probably too soon to tell, but if we expect a decrease in coal usage to automatically lead to a shifting of priority from freight-to-passenger rail in the U.S., we will be left holding our breath. This is not necessarily bad news either from an environmental perspective. While Europe, Indonesia, and others are struggling to move goods from truck-to-rail, the U.S. is in a good position in this sense.

As far as passenger rail goes, it is a different story. Some corridors will likely see relief for passenger rail from decreased infrastructure-intense coal rail traffic. But a large-scale shift from freight to passenger rail traffic is unlikely, mostly because high-speed passenger rail will arguably only make financial sense along high-density corridors where adequate investment and strong demand underpin it. Decreased coal usage will lead to a changed freight rail traffic system in the U.S., but it is more likely other goods will take its place, rather than people and priority for passenger rail.