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Coal has long been carried in larger quantities than any other type of freight load by North American railroads. The whole process is now automated to a high degree, especially by operators such as the Norfolk & Western Railroad, which delivers huge weights of coal from mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia for domestic use in the industrial cities, mainly in the area to the south of the Great Lakes, and for export sales via its port facilities at Lamberta Point on Chesapeake Bay. The Norfolk & Western Railroad’s operation handles more than 2 million tons of coal each month at Lamberts Point, where there is a mass of advanced equipment ranging from infra red thawing sheds, where the coal is defrosted if it has become frozen in the course of its journey from the mountain mining districts, to radar speed measuring, automatic weight recording and blending, and rotary dumpers. These last can each handle 252 cars per hour, the process turning the car through 165 degrees so that the coal pours out and the car is righted once more.
A similar undertaking, and one performed under somewhat more difficult conditions, is that of CP Rail in Canada. This operator had ten specialized trains that every year move 8 million tons of coal from the mining area near Crowsnest Pass in the Rocky Mountains to a new port at Roberts Bank, near Vancouver, for shipment across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. The movement of coal that is required in this process is based on continuous loading and rotary dumping, but the most difficult element of the whole program is the movement of trains between the mountains and the coast. The ten trains are worked as permanent units, with 95 cars each carrying 115 tone of coal. The nature of the line means that for some stages of each train’s trip, up to 11 locomotives, each delivering 3,000hp (2237kw), are used under the control of a computer to ensure the correct balancing of the power and traction so that the train does not break down under the application of uneven loads.
Unit trains of this type are notably cost-effective as far as operators are concerned, for they avoid all need for the operator to make up trains with loads from different companies for delivery to different destinations along and sometimes off the route to be traveled. This need to make up trains became inevitable after railroad routes began to meet and thereby open the way for the transhipments of loads, often from the lines of one operator to those of another. This often led to considerable delays in the completion of many loads, and in an effort to overcome this problem there appeared a number of fast freight lines in the course of the 19th century. Established by agreements between the groups of railroads primarily involved or between separate operators, the fast freight lines contracted with shippers to undertake the through shipment of their loads between different railroads.