Mining at Ffos-Y-Fran in South Wales is under severe threat from a planning decision that will force the mine to cease production.
Ffos-Y-Fran is the only UK mine producing. high-quality, low-emission ‘steam coal' that a number of British industries depend upon, including around 150 heritage railways.
Although almost all electricity generation in the UK now comes from other sources, manufacturing everything from steel to cosmetics still requires coal.
According to the Heritage Railway Association, the decision to stop production at Ffos-Y-Fran will almost certainly increase pollution, because those industries that have no viable alternative to coal will be forced to import coal from thousands of miles away.
The move to cease mining at Ffos-Y-Fran coincides with global shipping routes being disrupted by the war in Ukraine, leading to further volatility in the availability of high-quality coal.
British coal users are being forced to import coal from as far as Columbia, with a resultant increase in emissions caused by transporting coal over thousands of miles by sea.
The decision also poses a renewed threat to the continued existence of Britain's world-leading heritage rail sector, which draws visitors from around the world and generates more than £600m for the economy each year, as well as directly supporting around 4,000 jobs.
The continued operation of icons such as the Flying Scotsman will also be put at risk.
The cost pressures common in the visitor economy are also hitting heritage railways, but the cumulative impact of having to import coal could prove too much for some in this sector, which is almost exclusively not-for-profit.
Aside from the environmental considerations surrounding importing coal over huge distances, there are also concerns about supply security. 18 months ago the Ffos-Y-Fran mine temporarily closed because of equipment failure, forcing heritage railways to drastically reduce their services, with other sectors facing similar challenges.
In total, Britain's heritage railways use around 30,000 tonnes of coal a year, which is equivalent to what a single coal-fired power station would have used in a week.
Although alternative fuels for heritage steam locomotives are being researched and developed, at the moment, there are none that can completely replace coal.
In an effort to stress the importance of good quality, low-emission steam coal like that mined at Ffos-Y-Fran to the future of heritage rail, the Heritage Railway Association has actively engaged with a number of stakeholders to broaden understanding of the issues. It has also visited Ffos-Y-Fran and has met with local politicians on a number of occasions to discuss the situation.
Heritage Railway Association Chief Executive, Steve Oates, said: “On the face of it, I'm sure many people do believe that ending coal mining at Ffos-Y-Fran is good for the environment. But the reality is that overall emissions are almost certainly going to increase as a result of the closure.
“There's still a belief in this country that coal is inextricably linked to power stations. That's not the case anymore. Coal in the UK is chiefly used by a relatively small but important number of sectors and the volumes involved are pretty small – but the impact of having to import from thousands of miles away is huge.
“Most of those sectors still do not have a viable alternative to coal that they can turn to right now – no matter how much research might be going into an eventual solution.
“We think that this is a very short-sighted decision, which is likely to have dire longer-term consequences. We await a decision from the mine owners as to whether they will appeal or take the issue to the Welsh Government.
“We know that many in the Welsh Government understand just how pivotal supply of coal is to the heritage rail sector.
“Wales was the birthplace of railway preservation and has an unparalleled heritage rail visitor offer that helps people the world over appreciate stunning scenery without dependency upon the private car. The same is true in places like Pickering, Swanage and Bridgnorth too.
“I hope that the strategic value of this mine will mean the bigger picture can be properly considered before it's too late.”