The typical facility for loading ships consists of a holding area and a system of conveyors for transferring the coal to dockside and loading it into the ship's cargo holds. Originally the holding area consisted of a rail yard in which the loaded cars were sorted by grade and held until needed for loading. Modern facilities are more likely to unload the cars immediately (say with rotary car dumpers) and store the coal in piles until the ship is loaded. This frees up the cars for immediate reuse and obviates rail yard maintenance.
Dedicated coal piers began to be constructed in the 1880s at ports on the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes in the United States, and many of these survive (though highly modified) to the present. In Virginia, beginning in 1881, coal piers, operated by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) on the Virginia Peninsula at Newport News and in South Hampton Roads by the Norfolk and Western (N&W) and Virginian Railway (VGN) at Norfolk, made the port of Hampton Roads the largest shipping point of coal in the world by 1930. The Curtis Bay coal terminal in Baltimore, Maryland, built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) in the 1880s, was for a time the largest such facility in the world. C&O and B&O also had facilities on Lake Erie.
In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, a number of coal terminals such as the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Bellingham, Washington, were proposed for export of coal from the Powder River Basin to China. As of May 2013, three projects remained under consideration.
- "Lambert's Point Coal Terminal". Norfolk Southern.
- Dirty war; A rancorous scrap over plans to send American coal to Asia Coal would move from strip mines in Wyoming and Montana by rail April 20, 2013 The Economist
- Scott Learn, The Oregonian (May 8, 2013). "Another Northwest coal export project falls by the wayside; Kinder Morgan drops Oregon terminal plan". Oregon Online. Retrieved May 9, 2013.
- Plaven, George (13 October 2016). "Boardman Coal company dumps Morrow Pacific Project". East Oregonian. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
- "Tribes prevail, kill proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point". The Seattle Times. 10 May 2016. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
- "Developers withdraw coal terminal applications, ending project". The Bellingham Herald. 11 February 2017. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
- "Millennium loses appeal over shorelines permit". The Daily News tdn.com. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
- "Wyoming's lawsuit over blocked coal export terminal still alive, governor says". Casper Star-Tribune. 5 October 2020. Retrieved 15 November 2020.