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.
As of 2013 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. The Gateway Pacific Terminal, if constructed, would be operated by SSA Marine and commence operations in 2016. Of the six proposals, three had been dropped by May 9, 2013. In addition to Gateway Pacific, Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview, Washington, and Ambre Energy's Morrow Pacific Project in Boardman, Oregon remained under consideration.