What is a Coal Car?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 October 2019
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A coal car is a train car which has been specifically designed to carry coal. Coal cars are used to move coal around the site of a mine, and to transport coal to other locations for processing and sale. There are several different types of coal car in use, with some versions being more of historical interest than practical value.

Historically, coal mining was performed by digging into a hillside to reach a coal vein, and moving the coal out in coal cars which ran along a railroad. The gauge of the railroad was typically much smaller than that of a typical railroad, allowing the company to run tracks down narrow tunnels, and the coal cars were also small, allowing miners to quickly load the cars and return them to the surface in pairs or small teams. Miners also rode empty coal cars into the mines to get to work. Modern coal mining is not usually accomplished with this method, making coal cars of this type less necessary.


Railcars designed for carrying coal in the mines are iconic in some regions of the world. Many fans of Westerns, for example, are familiar with the use of the coal car, since the hero often seems to have a need to ride one into a coal or mineral mine at some point during the film. These cars were also icons of suffering and struggle during the Industrial Revolution, when the rate of coal mining increased radically to meet rising demand at the same time that people began to express concerns about working conditions and the use of child labor.

Full-sized train cars can also be equipped to carry coal. This type of coal car is often a box car, designed to be as sealed as possible to prevent loss of chunks or coal or dust which could gather in the natural environment. Coal is still routinely moved by container or coal car on trains rather than by truck because this method of transportation is cheap and efficient, and many railroads run in coal country and reach processing centers, power plants, and other facilities which use coal.

People may also use the term “coal car” to describe a car which runs on coal, usually liquid coal. This technology was developed early in the 20th century and a brief resurgence in interest occurred in the 21st century as people pursued clean technology. However, the fad for coal cars never really took off, with many environmentalists arguing that coal-powered cars were far from clean, and that other sources of energy should be explored if auto companies were concerned about the natural environment and fuel efficiency.


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