Britain’s heritage railways are running out of steam. Or, to be more precise, coal. Vintage rail 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 of the UK’s heritage rail companies say they are already having to cut services just as they prepare for the Easter break, when their main operating seasons begin. “It is a very serious problem,” said Paul Lewin, of Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways.
“UK coal for steam trains has now gone and our next supply source was to be Russia, which is now off the table for totally understandable reasons. We are in a very tricky position.”
This view was shared by Steve Oates, chief executive of the Heritage Railway Association. “The situation is very serious,” he said.
“Our coal stocks are running out fast and the search is on to find alternative sources from overseas. However, there is no obvious source for the right quality of coal that we require and prices are fluctuating all over the place. So yes, we are having severe difficulties.”
The UK has more than 150 heritage rail companies covering 560 miles of track that runs between 460 stations. These vintage rail operators range from the hugely successful Jacobite steam trains that operate on Network Rail track from Fort William and Mallaig in Scotland to tiny, privately owned narrow-gauge lines that are sometimes only a mile or two in length. Many used to serve now defunct mines or linked isolated towns in spectacularly remote regions and have become major tourist attractions.
“These lines play a big role in UK tourism today so any threat to them is a real worry,” added Chris Austin, secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on heritage railways.
“They are worth about half a billion pounds a year to the national economy – mainly through the visitors they attract to a region.
“Millions of tourists take trips on these lines every year. In addition the bigger heritage railways provide both employment and apprenticeship schemes.”
An example of the value of heritage lines to a region 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 an estimated £25m for the local economy.
The problem is that steam trains consume coal, an energy source now vilified for being a major source of greenhouse gases. In its attempts to reach net zero emissions, Britain has been closing down its coal mines. Ffos-y-fran, near Merthyr Tydfil, was the last to supply heritage rail lines with lumped coal but has now halted its supply before its total closure later this year.
“That has left us struggling,” Lewin told the Observer. “We badly need to find new coal sources.”
This point was echoed by James Shuttleworth of West Coast Railways, the company that runs Jacobite steam trains and provided the engines and carriages for the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films.
“You need coal that burns with a high calorific value for steam trains like ours and UK mines provided that,” he said. “It was absurd to close every British mine at a time when our steel and cement industries also still need coal and to rely, instead, on imports. We are paying the price for that decision today.”
Alternative smokeless fuels have been developed from mixes of anthracite, coal dust and molasses – the latter acting as a binding agent – and several narrow-gauge rail companies have recently launched trials of the substance. Initial results have been promising, although tests still have to undertaken to asses the impact such fuels have on vulnerable parts of locomotives, such as their fireboxes and boiler tubes.
In addition, it is unlikely these fuels will provide enough heat and energy to power steam trains that run on the country’s main lines, such as the Jacobite steam trains.
One short-term solution will be for rail lines to operate fewer but longer trains and to cut out days of operation when trains cannot be filled. Increased reliance on the pre-booking of tickets will also occur. In the meantime, searches for alternative sources of coal are being made with Australia and Colombia being suggested as possible candidates.
“Heritage railways are worth protecting because they are popular,” added Austin. “They are relaxing to travel on and the journeys provide educational experiences. For good measure they produce relatively little carbon dioxide compared with the emissions produced by an average holiday jet flight.
“They are also especially important to the nation because railways were Britain’s gift to the world. They were invented and developed here and exported all over the globe. They changed the world and are linked tightly to our history.”