Last week was the ribbon-cutting. This week, without fanfare, Signal Peak Energy began loading the first coal train to arrive at its mine south of Roundup.
Snaking around the new rail loop as it lined up under the hopper, the 115-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe coal train nearly circled back on itself. A few minutes after 10 a.m. - a year to the day from when Signal Peak broke ground at the site of the former Bull Mountain Coal Mine - roughly 238,000 pounds of fine coal dropped into the first empty rail car. Barely two minutes later, a rounded black mound filled the car to capacity and a second car had moved into place.
According to Byron Kinn, surface superintendent for Signal Peak Energy, the mine will ultimately load two to three coal trains per day, or possibly four when the massive underground longwall mining machine begins operation in November.
Thursday's inaugural load, however, moved in fits and starts between the first few cars. The pauses allowed technicians to calibrate the sensitive scale of the batch-weigh loadout, which feeds the coal into the train cars. For several hours, staff worked to adjust an "error" of 50 pounds.
"We do this once a year, but the initial test takes a little longer," said Don Reimer, who works for Montana's Bureau of Weights and Measures. "It's also a little different because of the sheer volume of the 240,000-pound capacity."
The batch-weigh loadout is fed by conveyor from two massive concrete silos situated above the rail loop. The contents of one silo, 14,000 tons, roughly equates to the capacity of one coal train. The hopper in the loadout is filled automatically, but it takes an operator to manually release the hatch that allows coal to flow into each car, explained Michael Placha, vice president of Signal Peak Energy and the related Global Rail line.
As loading began in earnest, the train inched forward at a rate of 0.64 miles per hour. Averaging 55 seconds per car and 7,200 tons of coal per hour, "we got done in record time," Placha said.
By afternoon, barely two hours later, the nearly milelong train was full and headed for Chicago and on to its destination at FirstEnergy's power plant in Ohio. The trip should take three to four days.
Prior to last January, coal from the Signal Peak Mine had been hauled into Lockwood by truck. Since then, the mine has stockpiled the coal into massive mounds. There's enough ready-to-ship coal to fill 10 trainloads, Placha said. The next trainload will ship out in three to four days, he added.
The underground coal seam at Signal Peak, which encompasses about 50 square miles, holds upwards of 1 billion tons of reserves, or 30 years' worth at projected production.
When the longwall machine is operational, production is expected to jump from the current 150,000 tons per month to 30,000 tons per shift. Based on tons of production per man-hour, that's two to three times more than today's most productive coal mine, said Bud Viren, vice president of engineering for Signal Peak Energy.
Bob Beesley, maintenance manager for Signal Peak, was awed by the culmination of the past year's labor.
"This is an exciting day," he said, grinning. "Other than when the kids or grandkids are born, it doesn't get any better than this."
Signal Peak Mine and the related Global Rail Project were built with an investment of $408 million by Boich Group and FirstEnergy, both of Ohio. The mine currently employs 185 people.
Contact Linda Halstead-Acharya at LHalstead-Acharya@billingsgazette.com or 657-1241.