The Last Rail Car

An end of an era and a step toward reducing greenhouse emissions on campus

FMD employees pose in front of the last rail car to bring coal to the West Campus steam plant.

Franklin Warren climbed aboard a small blue locomotive outside Duke's West Campus steam plant.


"Here we go! One last time," Warren, a Duke facilities steam plant mechanic II, told co-workers gathered for a symbolic coal delivery and ceremony behind the plant Thursday.


Warren throttled the locomotive engine, which pushed a rail car packed with coal inside the plant. Within minutes, tons of coal poured into a pit, destined for coal-fired boilers.

The coal delivery by rail car last week marked the end of an era and a step toward reducing Duke's use of coal. By tapping into other fuel sources, Duke is expected to cut its coal consumption by approximately 70 percent within the next year. By next winter, historic steam plant on East Campus is expected to re-open. It will burn natural gas, which produces lower emissions and greenhouse gases than coal.

"This is a big step toward sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint," said Kemel Dawkins, vice president for campus services, who thanked steam plant staff from the Facilities Management Department during the ceremony. 


For 80 years, rail cars have delivered coal from Kentucky and West Virginia to Duke to generate steam to heat and dehumidify hundreds of campus buildings and to sterilize surgical and other equipment in the health system.


John Noonan, associate vice president for Duke's Facilities Management Department (FMD), said during Thursday's ceremony that Duke is also studying how to convert the remaining coal-fired boilers in the West Campus steam plant to alternative fuels. For now, though, the much reduced amount of coal will continue to arrive at the West Campus plant by truck, instead of rail car.


To provide an alternative to coal, as well as add needed capacity, the Duke Board of Trustees approved funding in May 2008 to renovate the East Campus steam plant, which heated Duke's buildings from 1929 to 1978. The newly renovated plant will feature state-of- the-art boilers that have high efficiency and ultra low emissions. It's expected to be online before next winter and will rely on natural gas.

The efforts are part of Duke's goal to become a climate-neutral campus, a pledge made by President Richard Brodhead in 2007, as part of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.

"We're looking forward to the day we don't rely on coal," said Russell Thompson, director of utilities and engineering for Duke facilities.