Coal-fired locomotives, as passe as the Pullman car, may be headed for a comeback. Punishing fuel bills are prompting a growing number of railroads to take a harder look at coal power.
Burlington Northern recently struck a deal with General Electric Company to design a coal-fired internal-combustion engine. More advanced research is under way to produce a new generation of clean-burning ''external'' coal-fired locomotives. American Coal Enterprises Inc. in Akron, Ohio, is talking to several railroads about bankrolling its prototype coal steamer. Three other firms have plans for coal-burning ''iron horses''.
Still, the rails won't be rattling with coal burners any time soon. And enough technological bugs and skepticism in the rail industry remain so that the first coal users probably won't hit the rails until the late 1980s.