N&W’s Lamberts Point pier June 7, 2010Posted by Jenny in memoir, railroads.
Tags: coal terminals, coal transportation, Lamberts Point, Norfolk, Norfolk & Western Railway, Norfolk Southern
This is a continuation of the post entitled “The N&W Railway and I.”
Does the idea of tandem rotary dumpers leave you cold? Are you not all that interested in thaw sheds and shiploaders? Then please, by all means, skip this post.
I can’t remember exactly what year it was that I visited the N&W (I should say Norfolk Southern) Lamberts Point Pier 6 in Norfolk. Probably in the mid to late 90s. But I can tell you that I will never forget the impression that it made.
As you might imagine, the business of moving a heavy, bulky, dirty commodity like coal from Point A to Point B, or from the mine to the train to the ocean vessel, involves a lot of heavy, bulky, complicated equipment. When it comes to getting the coal from the train onto the ship, almost all of the time the procedure involves a ground storage facility. In other words, the coal gets transferred from the railcars into large stockpiles, and then it can stay there for quite a while until it is transferred by bucket-wheel or clamshell machinery, or something similar—big scooping devices in one form or another—onto the ship.
The thing that’s amazing about Lamberts Point is that the coal goes directly from the train into the shiploader and onto the ship. (Well, there’s a slight exception called the surge silo, in some cases.) The other thing that’s really cool is that you have dozens of trainloads that have come from places like McDowell and Wyoming Counties, West Virginia, or Buchanan County, Virginia, and at the upper end of the Lamberts Point pier the locomotives are detached from the coal cars, and from there on it’s all done by gravity.
It’s a bit like one of those Rube Goldberg machines where, once the first part is set into motion, a whole chain of events unfolds without the need for any outside propulsion.
If you look at the (admittedly tiny) photo above, you will see a few hundred coal cars that have no locomotive attached. Each individual car is known by an identifying number, and each one is released down the slope in a certain intricate sequence in order to put together a particular blend for an overseas customer. Since 95% of the coal moving through Norfolk is metallurgical, that will be a steel company. Using the names I am familiar with from a little ways back, that could be Sollac or British Steel, Eregli or Ilva, Posco or Nippon Steel. Probably these have all changed their corporate identities by now.
Carefully shepherded by a team up in a giant glass-sided control tower, each car passes in its proper sequence over an electronic scale and then glides into the dumper area. If it is during the winter, there is a detour through the thaw shed to heat up the railcar, since otherwise frozen coal might stick into the car. And then the railcar goes into the dumper area and gets turned completely upside down—track and car together—to empty out the coal. This is much more efficient than hopper cars in which bottom slats open up to let the coal out. The photo below is not from Lamberts Point, but it illustrates the concept of rotary dumping.
The empty railcars then pick up momentum and glide up a slight slope into the “kickback” area, where they roll back gracefully onto a different track for diversion to the area of the yard where they will be hitched up to locomotives again and return to the coalfields.
In the meantime, the coal from the rotary dumpers is fed into towering shiploaders that drop coal into vessels of up to capesize proportions. That means vessels of around 120,000 deadweight tons, ones so large they can’t go through the Panama Canal—those smaller ones are called panamaxes.
And what kinds of coal, exactly, are going overseas? Here is a list from when I was knowledgeable about the business—it has certainly changed since then—Buchanan, Amonate, Jenkinjones, Virginia Pocahontas, McClure, Clinchfield, Moss No. 3, Kopperston, Rocklick, Tanoma, Virginia Crews, Iager, Red Ash, Litwar, Race Fork, Permac, Raven, Pinnacle.
I know that a lot of those operations have shut down, but I hear that new things are happening in the overseas market, and that India and China are buying a lot of coal. But it all goes back to a world of narrow, shadowy valleys on that Virginia/West Virginia border, towns like Welch and War and Wolf Pen, with the big tipple and next to it the rail spur that takes up nearly all of the space next to the stream, and a row of houses and a twisting little road that winds its way along.