John McPhee has long been one of my favorite essayists. He just seems to write about things of interest to me. You may remember a review I wrote several months ago about his article in The New Yorker about barge traffic on the Illinois River. Apparently, that article, one I just finished related to coal trains (The New Yorker, October 3 and 10, 2005,) and several others with a transportation theme will be published as a book in the spring of 2006. I can hardly wait.
I have always been consumed by curiosity about what it's like to do different things so Driver: Six Weeks in an Eighteen-Wheeler, reviewed previously, and McPhee's coal and barge articles have been difficult to put down.
Driving a train would seem simple enough: you push the lever forward and off you go. Not so. Coal trains, of which just one power plant in Georgia requires 3 fully loaded trains per day to keep running, are usually more than one and one-half miles long and weigh 34,000 tons. They are by far the heaviest trains on the rails. The train is so long that the engine in front (these trains must have engines in front and back and often in the middle as well to adjust the strain on the couplers) will often be applying the brakes going down hill while the engines in back are pushing the cars still going up the other side of the rise. They can't go up hills, per se. A slop of even 1.5% makes the engines work hard.
Twenty-three thousand coal trains leave the Powder River basin every year; that's thirty-four thousand miles of rolling coal in a never ending stream of coal for power plants. The Powder River basin coal generates less heat, i.e. fewer BTU's than eastern coal, but it has a much lower sulfur content so following stricter environmental regulations eastern mines have been dying while western ones are thriving. That's where the railroads come in.
Plant Scherer in Georgia, a large power plant, usually has a one-million-ton pile of coal in reserve. To understand the revived interest in nuclear power, that pile generates the equivalent of one truckload of mined uranium. "To get a million BTUs, fuel oil costs nine dollars (before recent price increases,) natural gas six dollars, coal one-dollar-eighty-five, and nuclear fifty cents."
"Plant Scherer burns the contents of thirteen hundred coal trains per year -- two thousand miles of coal cars, twelve million tons of the bedrock of Wyoming." The plant requires twelve thousand acres to store, process and burn the coal. Think about that the next time you turn the lights on.
For an interview with McPhee see (link.)