A coaling tower, coal stage, coaling plant or coaling station is a facility used to load coal as fuel into railway steam locomotives. Coaling towers were often sited at motive power depots or locomotive maintenance shops.
In the early years of railways, coal was shovelled by hand into locomotive tenders, the first attempt in Britain to replace manual labour by gravity in the refuelling process being found at Shildon, County Durham, where coal drops were built by the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1847.
In time, railway companies constructed more elaborate coaling towers, made from wood, steel, or reinforced concrete (ferroconcrete). In almost all cases coaling stations used a gravity fed method, with one or more large storage bunkers for the coal elevated on columns above the railway tracks, from which the coal could be released to slide down a chute into the waiting locomotive's coal storage area. The method of lifting the bulk coal into the storage bin varied. The coal usually was dropped from a hopper car into a pit below tracks adjacent to the tower. From the pit a conveyor-type system used a chain of motor-driven buckets to raise the coal to the top of the tower where it would be dumped into the storage bin; a skip-hoist system lifted a single large bin for the same purpose. Some facilities lifted entire railway coal trucks or wagons. Sanding pipes were often mounted on coaling towers to allow simultaneous replenishment of a locomotive's sand box.
As railways in many countries replaced steam by diesel and electric traction during the 1950s and 1960s, the need for coaling towers declined, and eventually vanished completely. Of the more than 100 ferroconcrete examples built in Britain, those at Immingham and Carnforth were the final two left standing, the former being demolished in 2018. The Carnforth coaling tower, built by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1939, is a Grade II* listed building. In the United States, many reinforced concrete towers remain[needs update] in place if they do not interfere with operations due to the high cost of demolition incurred with these massive structures.