Feeding Coal into a Paper Plant

In my post from yesterday, I presented the first draft of the diagram that operators of my layout will use to help them determine which cars are moved to and from each car spot. That post generated a question about the purpose of the spots and the commodities, so I’ll start to answer that with a description of how the plant manages the production of energy. I’ve added some colour to the diagram to help clarify things and to give some indication of how the plant operates.

International Paper Schematic

It takes a great deal of energy to make paper, and the International Paper plant at North Tonawanda had its own powerhouse fueled by coal. During peak production times, the plant consumed as much as 150 tons of coal per day. That amounts to average flow of two to three hopper cars daily, depending on the size of freight car being used. I don’t have all of the details of how coal was delivered and unloaded at the plant I’m modelling, but I’m making some informed guesses to come up with something plausible.

I do know that coal was stockpiled at the edge of the property near the warehouse/shipping area, so that’s what I’ve modelled. There was also a 100 ton silo at the powerhouse, so in my estimation, they would make sure the silo is always more than half full to ensure there are no interruptions in power supply. The powerhouse is shown in red in the diagram. The stockpile is adjacent to the “coal track” at the bottom right.

The stockpile of coal assures that fluctuations in the supply of coal can be managed. Coal can arrive at the stockpile in quantities larger than the daily consumption for a number of operating sessions, and there also needn’t be any delivery of coal for a few “days.” This allows for a great deal of variation in the flow of traffic. The plant also uses a hopper to shuttle the coal from the stockpile to the powerhouse. To accomplish this, they’re sure to keep one empty hopper car captive at all times, and the crew switching the plant might be assigned the task of shuttling a load or two between the bulk storage and the powerhouse. It’s also possible that some coal loads went directly into the powerhouse at the time they were delivered to the plant, though I imagine that would have happened less frequently than coal being delivered to the stockpile. Coal hoppers can be spotted at 27, 28, or 29. The unloader is at spot 29. The powerhouse is at spot 21.

I’ll put together a description of the other spots in a future post.


9 thoughts on “Feeding Coal into a Paper Plant

  1. Great post, Hunter. In addition to having a stockpile so the plant did not need a daily delivery of coal, I wonder if the stockpile represented the economics of bulk coal purchasing? Perhaps it was cheaper to buy, say, 30 cars all at once versus 10 purchases of three cars each. Or perhaps the stockpile allowed the plant to monitor fluctuations in the price of coal and buy when slightly cheaper – which, over a year of supply for all International Paper operations, might amount to significant savings. Just a couple of thoughts…

    • I hadn’t thought of that Trevor. That seems probable. The bottom line is that the plant always needs to have coal on hand or they can’t operate. It’s certainly reasonable to think that management kept an eye on keeping their fuel costs as low as possible. They had the space in their property, so why not stockpile?

  2. Working out the machinations of industrial plant operations is frequently difficult. Unless you work there or are very familiar the the industry, there is often a lot of guess work and deduction based on whatever evidence you can gather from outside involved. We have 2 paper plants we will be building on the Sudbury Division, and they vary considerably in layout and details from your plant. We have a lot of detective work to do in order to create a reasonably realistic recreation of the traffic flow for these places. One of our prototypes has been torn down since we started this project, which makes it more difficult to figure out what was what there.


    • Well that’s exactly what I’m going through Jurgen. The factory I’m modeling ceased operating prior to the inception of Conrail, which itself has since disappeared. What’s important to me is to establish operations that are reasonable within the bounds of what I know about this operation. “Reasonable” is informed by what took place at similar operations, though that is never a guarantee of getting it right. So I forge ahead with reasonable assumptions and correct any errors as my research reveals them. I think this is a good way to summarize what so-called prototype modellers do.

  3. This is really neat. It’s the sort of detail I find really captivating – how the customer used the railroad and how the railroad served the customer need.

    So if spot 29 is the end of the siding would there be enough room to hold empty cars behind 29? If more than one car were delivered at a time I wonder how the work of unloading was handled in terms of marshalling cars. Just curious.


    • Spot 29 is as far into the coal track that a car can go. This where the unloading conveyor is located because it’s the closest to the stockpile. This means that a load spotted at 27 and/or 28 is essentially off-spot until the train crew shuffles cars around for unloading.

      Something that adds interest to an operating session is the fact that during a work shift, a crew could move cars on the coal track two or possibly even three times.

  4. Hunter, Great stuff here. i’ve been considering a paper plant for a while. Is this location a logs through to paper type mill—I.E. one that also makes pulp—or do they also use pulp from another location?

    • Thanks Roger. Prior to about 1965 or so, this mill was logs to paper. They stockpiled logs brought from Canada and Michigan by ship. They had log yard where they used the logs to build temporary walls to contain the huge pile. Around 1965 they converted the operation to receive woodchips instead of logs. To do that, they built a facility to vacuum chips out of boxcars near the site of the former log yard. The new track into that area was called the “Wood Yard.” From the woodchips, the plant made their own pulp. They changed production as necessary to produce a range of fine paper products in relatively small batches (small as compared to a newsprint mill which makes a colossal quantity of one very particular product).

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