Visualizing Local Impacts of Coal Exports to China

Hello, my name is Yolandita. I am an Environmental Sustainability major at Shepherd University and a volunteer at SkyTruth. I have been asked to produce a 3D model of a coal train, that will be published to Google Earth. Coal companies are planning to export coal from Powder River Coal Fields in Wyoming to Bellingham, Washington, where it will ultimately be exported to markets in Asia. There will be 60 trains, each nearly a mile and a half long, making the trip daily. The 3D model will demonstrate what the train will look like passing through small towns along the way such as Billings, Montana and help visualize the local impacts.


Close up of the locomotive in Google Earth, with downtown Billings skyline in the background.

I used Google Sketchup and Google Sketchup Gallery to make the train model. I found and downloaded a perfect model of a BNSF locomotive and a few vehicles that would work. I then downloaded a coal car model and, using Google Sketchup, broke it to pieces and rebuilt it to match one of the BNSF coal car models.

Shot of the coal car, as I edit it, in sketchup.
The coal train shown below is a scale model of a 7,500 foot long BNSF train that will make the trip from Wyoming to Washington. The average carrying capacity for BNSF coal cars are just over 113 tons of coal. We’ve estimated that a typical train will consist of about 137 coal cars, which would mean an average of about 15,500 tons of coal for each train. That’s over 930,000 tons of coal being transported every day.


Here you can see the full length of the train running parallel to Montana Ave.,
from 30th street to 10th street, in Billings, Montana

For more background on SkyTruth’s research on coal transportation and its impacts, check out some of our other blogs, such as Coal Dust Threat in Seward, Alaska.

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