The Powder River Basin in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming has become the single largest source of coal mined in the United States, and the industry relies on rail to move the coal to where it is needed. The story began in the early 1970s, when Robert W. Downing, Burlington Northern's president--and the official responsible for its railroad operations, recommended to the BN board that the company build a 127-mile line from Gillette to Douglas, Wyoming, through a large area of coal deposits between two existing BN mainlines. At the same time, the Chicago & North Western petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to build into the coal fields. Under pressure from the ICC, the two railroads reached an agreement to build a jointly owned line to serve the major part of the coal territory south of Gillette connecting with the C&NW near Orin Junction. BN asked the ICC for approval in 1972; in 1976 the ICC approved construction. BN completed the line in 1979 after Downing retired from its board. (Downing now lives in Spokane.) BN also upgraded secondary mainlines, especially through Alliance, Nebraska. In 1983, C&NW completed the agreement for joint ownership of 102 miles of the coal line, and with Union Pacific's help, it built tracks to connect it with UP and operated its first PRB coal train in 1984. C&NW has since merged into UP. Because of the Powder River Basin, Wyoming has been the top coal-producing state in the United States since 1988. In 2007, the Powder River Basin produced 436 million short tons (396 million metric tonnes) of coal, more than twice the production of second-place West Virginia, and more than the entire Appalachian region. In the photo, three moving trains pass at speed on Logan Hill's 1 percent grade in June 2007. The grading for a fourth track can be seen at the edge of the photo. By May 2008, the 21 miles over Logan Hill had four main tracks in service, while the entire Wyoming coal line had expanded to three tracks.
Hear an except from an interview with Bob Downing
in November 2008, discussing his visit to the Powder River Basin in June 2008.
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