Britain’s heritage railways are running out of steam. Or, to be more precise, coal. Old train operators across the country have warned that their stocks are now dangerously low and the prospects of replacing them in the near future look bleak.
Many UK incumbent rail companies say they are already having to cut services just as they prepare for the Easter holidays when their main operating seasons begin. “This is a very serious problem,” said Paul Lewin, of Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways.
“British coal for steam trains is now gone and our next source of supply was to be Russia, which is now ruled out for quite understandable reasons. We are in a very delicate situation. »
This view was shared by Steve Oates, managing director of the Heritage Railway Association. “The situation is very serious,” he said.
“Our coal stocks are running out quickly and research is underway to find alternative sources overseas. However, there is no obvious source for the good quality coal we need and prices fluctuate. everywhere. So yes, we have serious difficulties.
The UK has over 150 heritage rail companies covering 560 miles of track that connect 460 stations. These vintage rail operators range from the hugely successful Jacobite steam trains that run on the Network Rail tracks of Fort William and Mallaig in Scotland to tiny narrow-gauge private lines that are sometimes only a mile or two long. Many once served now-defunct mines or connected isolated towns in spectacularly remote areas and have become major tourist attractions.
“These lines play an important role in tourism in the UK today, so any threat to them is a real concern,” added Chris Austin, secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on heritage railways.
“They bring in around half a billion pounds a year to the national economy – mainly through the visitors they bring to an area.
“Millions of tourists use these lines every year. Additionally, the larger heritage railways offer both employment and apprenticeship programs.
An example of the value of heritage lines to an area is provided by Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways, whose steam trains – which run from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog and from Caernarfon to Porthmadog – attract around 200,000 visitors a year, generating around 25 million pounds for the local economy.
The problem is that steam trains burn coal, an energy source now reviled for being a major source of greenhouse gases. In its attempts to achieve net zero emissions, Britain has closed its coal mines. Ffos-y-fran, near Merthyr Tydfil, was the last to supply coal to heritage railway lines but has now cut off supply ahead of its total closure later this year.
“It left us struggling,” Lewin told the Observer. “We badly need to find new sources of coal.”
This point was taken up by James Shuttleworth of West Coast Railways, the company which operated the Jacobite steam trains and supplied the engines and carriages for the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.
“You need coal that burns with a high calorific value for steam trains like ours and British mines provide for that,” he said. “It was absurd to close all the UK mines at a time when our steel and cement industries still need coal and rely, instead, on imports. We are now paying the price for this decision.
Smokeless alternative fuels have been developed from mixtures of anthracite, coal dust and molasses – the latter acting as a binder – and several narrow gauge railway companies have recently started trials of the substance. The first results are promising, although tests have yet to be undertaken to assess the impact of these fuels on vulnerable parts of locomotives, such as their hearths and boiler tubes.
Moreover, these fuels are unlikely to provide enough heat and power to power the steam trains that run on the country’s main lines, such as the Jacobite steam trains.
A short-term solution will be for rail lines to run fewer but longer trains and reduce days of operation when trains cannot be filled. Increased reliance on pre-booking tickets will also occur. Meanwhile, searches for alternative sources of coal are underway, with Australia and Colombia being suggested as possible candidates.
“Heritage railroads are worth protecting because they’re popular,” Austin added. “They are relaxing to travel and travel provides educational experiences. For good measure, they produce relatively little carbon dioxide compared to the emissions produced by an average vacation jet flight.
“They are also particularly important to the nation because the railways were Britain’s gift to the world. They were invented and developed here and exported around the world. They have changed the world and are closely linked to our history.