Using rail sounds good, and is the way the coal typically used to move over longer distances, but it's not easy to find circumstances where it now can compete effectively with trucking. Some of the contributing factors:
- Trucking tends to be very cost competitive with rail for distances of up to 500 miles or so. Even for bulk movements, trucking generally doesn't cost that much, and rail has a tough time competing. For palletized shipments that can be moved on flatbeds or in dry vans, trucking tends to be particularly competitive. If you're shipping anthracite to NV, by all means look at rail, but within the northeast don't bet on it.
- With the overall decline in the volume of anthracite burned, 100 tons doesn't sell as fast as it used to. A rail carload represents a big cash outlay and substantial carrying costs for a dealer relative to a TL. Plus, with different coal sizes, a dealer receiving bulk coal would be looking at several 100 ton shipments.
- Even with the general improvement in the health and performance of the railroads since the 1980's, carload service is not like UPS. Moving a railcar from PA to New England, for example, involves numerous specific steps (spot empty railcar at mine; wait for release by mine; pull to local yard; classify for line-haul movement; etc.). The operational complexity increases if multiple carriers are involved, which typically would be the case around here. The best hope would be a movement that could be served from mine to delivery point by the line-haul railroad (generally NS or CSX; maybe CP in some spots). Even then If you order a carload today, and order another one next Monday, there's a chance you'll receive both of them on the same day. Carload service generally is incompatible with just-in-time practices, and basically requires the use of big stockpiles.
- While loaded railcars are wending their way to a delivery point during the winter, moisture in the coal has plenty of time to freeze. It's not a problem with dry coal from stock, but there's generally not a lot of that sitting around in January. To avoid this issue, you need to buy your railcars of coal in warm weather (cue Alanis Morissette), spend extra on additives or maintain a thawing shed at the delivery point. Or, use the approach of one enterprising coal receiver at a powerplant, who was dissatisfied with unloading problems and "carryback" associated with frozen coal, and attempted to address these issues by chucking sticks of dynamite into the cars.
Or, even better, work with a trucker to make sure the move occurs on a warm enough day, and even wet coal straight out of the breaker can be placed at its delivery point with no hassle on the same day it was loaded.
- Doug is correct that the railroads are fussy about wanting their cars back. You can address this by making real sure you are prepared to accept the carload at any time of the day or night, owning and maintaining your own railcar, or paying demurrage to keep the railroad's car for longer than the allowed free time for unloading.
There probably are more factors, but that's a good start.
Even with all of those factors, it still is possible that rail delivery will be viable in some circumstances. I'm not saying don't look into it; I'm saying don't be surprised if trucking turns out to be a better option.