Coal's Revival and Unit Coal Trains (2 of 5)


At first there was considerable controversy over the overland route that the coal should take. A proposal was made to build a railway from the mainline of the Great Northern Railway (now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe) in northern Montana. Using this line, to be called the Kootenay and Elk Railway, would have moved the coal almost exclusively through the United States before it was returned to Canada for loading onto ocean-going bulk carriers. However, although the route was shorter and probably more efficient than an all-Canadian rail route would have been, it was rejected for reasons of job losses and a desire to keep the economic benefits of the coal exports as much as possible in Canada.

The Canadian Pacific rebuilt its trackage from Cranbrook north to its main line at Golden to accommodate the heavy coal trains. At the same time, a new coal port or "super port" was built south of Vancouver at Roberts Bank and a connecting rail line was constructed across the Fraser Valley to reach the new site. The coal port was built just north of the B.C. Ferries terminal at Tsawwassen.

A very important part of the concept was that the trains should operate as units (or "unit trains") and not be broken up into individual cars at yards in the way traditional freight trains were handled by the railways. Unless a car was taken out of a train for scheduled maintenance, it stayed in the train from one cycle to another from the mine to the coast and back to the mine, without ever being uncoupled.

The distance from Sparwood to Roberts Bank is 2258 km (1,403 miles) and trains made the round trip in about 82 hours. At first only three trains were used but soon six were in operation and since then, many more have been added and the trains have increased in length to over 110 cars representing trains of over 14,900 tonnes.


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