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The Navajos' Only Railroad Reaches the End of the Line

With its one customer — a huge coal-fired plant — shut down, the freight railroad has gone out of business and its tracks lie unused. But some on the reservation hope to revive train service for tourists.

The only railroad on the Navajo reservation shut down last summer. Instead of carrying passengers, the 78-mile-long line was used to transport coal. The electrified Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad brought coal from the Kayenta strip mine to the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Page, Ariz., located in the northeastern part of the state. Eighty-three cars, each carrying 100 tons of coal, made the trip three times a day when the plant ran at full capacity. At its peak, the strip mine produced 8 million tons of coal annually.

Once extracted, coal from the Kayenta mine was delivered to the train via a 17-mile-long conveyor system, following the contours of mountain and mesa. Visible from a great distance, four 200-foot silos held the coal until the empty train returned for more.

Succumbing to market pressures, the coal-fired plant shut down in November 2019 after nearly a half century of service to the Southwest. Able to produce 2,250 megawatts at full capacity, NSG powered the growth of Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Once one of the largest coal-fired plants in the United States, it was also at one time the country’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. 

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The Kayenta mine coal conveyor no longer operates.


Hundreds of Navajo jobs were lost when the two facilities closed down, although many workers chose to relocate to other facilities, and some will stay on to assist in reclamation efforts. Valued at $120 million, the train tracks now belong to the Navajos and may one day take tourists to Lake Powell. Until then, local residents and their cattle need no longer worry about colliding with the mile-long train at one of its 38 crossings. 

The system of poles and wires that powered the electric train is already collapsing in places along the tracks. But power lines are still strung high overhead of the thousands of Navajo homes below without access to electricity. 

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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