As green campaigners attack the recent government decision to allow the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria, the UK’s heritage railways have been forced to look abroad for their coal supplies.
The new mine at Woodhouse Colliery, near Whitehaven, will mine around three million tonnes of coking coal from under the Irish Sea each year. This will be go towards the eight million tonnes used annually by UK industry, leaving five million tonnes still needed to be imported.
However, the heritage railways, as well as other users of steam-powered machinery such as traction engines and pumping stations, need bituminous lump coal, which is not the same thing. The two recent planning applications for coal mines in the North East – which were recommended by government inspectors who were then overruled by the Secretary of State – would have produced suitable coal, but their planning permission was refused.
The sole remaining source of steam coal in the UK is in Wales, and that mine is due to close in 2022.
Steve Oates, chief executive of the Heritage Railway Association, commented: “Over the past five years, every planning application for a new mine which could have produced the kind of coal we need has been refused.
“There are some limited stocks in reserve, and the last producing mine in the UK, Ffos-y-fran in South Wales, will close in early 2022. After that, unless we find an alternative source of supply, heritage railways will be running on coal dust.”
Government policy has brought about the end of fossil-fuel burning for energy production. The nation’s last three coal-fired power stations will be shut down in the next three years. But demand for coal in the UK will remain high. The steel industry uses some three million tonnes of a coal a year, and the cement industry uses almost another two million tonnes. To fulfil all the UK’s requirements for steel and cement production, coal will still have to be imported from sources such as Russia or Colombia, or even as far away as Australia.
The new mine in Cumbria will remove the need for that, but it doesn’t help the heritage railways.
“Quite simply, it is the wrong kind of coal,” explained Howard Johnson, a director of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. “Industrial material for steel and cement production tends to be 0.25mm. Heritage railways require high-quality 50-125mm bituminous coal.
“We’re going to have to do what British steel and cement producers do, bring it in from overseas. That means we must set up our own supply chain, all the way from a foreign port, to the coalyard at the railway. It will call for knowledge, expertise and substantial cashflow reserves. It will substantially increase costs to heritage railways. It’s a major challenge.”
Only by combining resources will the heritage railways be able to meet that challenge. The Heritage Railway Association is already acting on its members’ behalf, exploring ways and means of sourcing and distributing imported coal. Limited trials of imported coal are already underway, starting in December 2020 on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and the Severn Valley Railway. With steaming opportunities constrained by lockdown, conclusive results are awaited.
HRA President Lord Faulkner, speaking in the House of Lords, has called on the government to provide funding assistance and technical support for securing overseas supplies of coal, and to work with the heritage steam sector to fund environmental measures to mitigate the use of coal.
Although UK steam railways use only 26,000 tonnes of coal every year, HRA members work at every level to mitigate the environmental impact of steam operation, from training staff in the most efficient techniques for the cleanest-burning of coal to undertaking offset activities such as lineside greening, photovoltaic power for facilities and solar power for water pre-heating.
“Heritage railways produce just 0.02% of the UK’s total CO₂ emissions – and return huge rewards in terms of leisure, entertainment and education,” Steve Oates stated. “But, like everyone, we need to develop and maintain the highest environmental credentials. Our mission now is to secure high-quality coal from overseas that meets our heritage, tourism and commercial needs, and which meet or exceed UK quality standards.”