The application for a new coal mine in Northumberland has been rejected by the Government, and the Heritage Railway Association has said that this decision is a blow to the heritage railways in Britain.
They have also said that many railways may be forced to reduce or cease operation as a result of this decision.
Heritage railways, like traction engines, steam boats, steam ships and static steam engines, all need coal to function, and the kind of coal they need is different to that used by power stations; however, it can be sourced from the same mines.
In England, the last mine producing washed lump coal, which is vital for heritage steam, ceased operating in August, marking “a bleak future for heritage railways”.
On behalf of their members, the Heritage Railway Association has been asking the Government for clarity on the future of coal for heritage steam.
The Government has stated that it has no wish to see the end of heritage steam in the UK, however, whilst it has understood the problem facing the heritage sector, it has yet to find a solution.
‘It makes no sense,’ said Steve Oates, the Heritage Railway Association’s CEO. ‘The UK needs five million tonnes of coal every year, for steel and cement production. The decision to end coal production in the UK is driven by CO2 reduction targets. But the CO2 generated by importing coal from countries like Russia and the USA produces ten times more emissions than producing it domestically.’
‘Steam engines need washed lump coal,’ says Oates. ‘It’s different to the more finely-grained coal the steel and cement industries need,’ Britain’s heritage railways use just 26,000 tonnes of coal a year. ‘Such coal can be imported,’ said Oates, ‘But it will come at prices most railways simply won’t be able to afford.’
Coal produced in the UK is famous, and much loved by railways such as the Bluebell Railway, the Ffestiniog Railway and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. No heritage railway in the UK was more than 400 miles from a source of the right kind of coal; most had coal within 200 miles.
However, with imported coal, these distances significantly multiply: 5000 miles from Russia, 4,700 miles from America, 13,500 miles from Australia.
‘But UK heritage railways produce just 0.02% of the UK‘s CO2 emissions,’ Oates explains. ‘And for that very small amount, they not only preserve and promote the great enabler of Britain’s proud industrial and social heritage, they provide work for some 4000 people, attract some 13million visitors annually, and bring an estimated £400 million to the British economy every year.’ Even so, he points out, ‘we still take our environmental responsibilities very seriously, and work at best practice as well as offset schemes, to mitigate the impact of the very small amount of CO2 we produce.’
2020 has been a brutal year for the heritage railways in Britain; the HRA has told RailAdvent that the coronavirus pandemic has forced the closure of them for their best months of year. Many are now “run on a shoestring”, and with costs and overheads still need paying, some “may not survive”, with those railways reopening in the last few weeks are coming out of closure “financially bruised”.
‘The Highthorn refusal is massively disappointing,’ Oates said. ‘The Heritage Railway Association is considering how to proceed. We’re already taking the lead in evaluating options for securing supplies from overseas, and ways of combining the buying power of our sector to make it happen. In their day, the railways enabled so much of Britain’s proudest history. Today they entertain and educate millions of people every year. We can’t allow them to suffer the unintended consequences of policy decisions.’
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