A crisis is facing the future of all heritage steam due to the shortage of suitable UK mined coal and the carbon impact of imports.
Members and experts representing all sectors of heritage steam transport gathered at Tenterden town station, home to the Kent and East Sussex Railway, this week to highlight the threat to the future of heritage steam in this country.
The planned closure of the final UK dry steam coal mine at Ffos-Y-Fran in Wales will affect many heritage properties and museums that rely on the revenue of steam-based events from tourism to survive.
Matt Hyner, trustee for the Kent and East Sussex Railway said; “The Kent & East Sussex Railway is extremely concerned that UK sources of the specialist coal we use will run out by the end of 2022.
“The big concern is that we simply don’t know where the next batch of coal is coming from. When this is gone, what next? Prices have increased by 200% so far this year. The best solution in the medium term, for the environment and for stability of supply, is controlled extraction of high-quality UK coal for uses like heritage steam.
“We are therefore joining the Heritage Railway Association, and our colleagues across the preserved steam sector, in calling on UK governments to pause the planned closure and review the licensing of the Ffos-Y-Fran dry steam coal mine to ensure that attractions like ours, which rely on coal, will continue to flourish whilst minimising their environmental impact.”
Of the 12 million tonnes of coal used in the UK each year, 35,000 is used by the heritage steam sector, 26,000 tonnes of this by heritage and mainline railways. Other heritage steam usage includes marine steamships, historic road steam engines and steam exhibits in museums.
Bill Giles, organiser of the annual Weald of Kent Steam Rally at Woodchurch, said; “The planned closure of the last UK coal mines at the end of 2022 puts the entire heritage steam sector in crisis.
“Steam railways such as the Kent and East Sussex and the Bluebell Railway will be affected, steam fairs such as the Weald of Kent Steam Rally, the international steam rally in Dorset, and marine steam such as the Steam Preservation Society ships at Chatham Dockyard, due to take part in the Queen’s Jubilee flotilla this summer, will all suffer.”
He added; “If the UK mined coal supply is cut off, the heritage steam sector will have to rely on imports from places like Kazakhstan and Colombia, which is lower quality ‘house coal’. It is smoky, emits higher particulates and lowers air quality. It is also expensive, which is another issue for so many heritage sites who are charitable status organisations and rely on volunteers and donations to survive.”
There are also worries over the carbon footprint of imported coal which has to travel thousands of miles before arriving at UK markets.
The conflict in Ukraine has further impacted the situation. The UK steel industry relies on 75% of coal imported from Russia. Currently, it is using all production of the last UK dry steam coal to fulfil its requirements.
There is no additional coal production available for the heritage steam sector which has been forced to exhaust supplies or look to e-coal alternatives, which are as yet unproven and very costly.
Experts want government action in the form of new licences being granted in the same way that new licences are being granted for the oil and gas sectors.
“We are talking months, not years” warned Bill Giles, before supplies are exhausted and excursions on steam trains, heritage steamships and traction engine rallies, really are a thing of the past.
Image Credits: Chris Lawson .