As it stands today available steam coal reserves can be measured in weeks rather than years. Without a source of high-quality, low-pollution steam coal we may see icons like Flying Scotsman grounded forever and find ourselves unable to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025.
The most sustainable and environmentally conscious solution is the controlled extraction of high-quality UK steam coal specifically for responsible, low-volume users like heritage rail. We’re still working on alternatives, but the development required for widescale adoption will take time we don’t currently have.
- The UK heritage rail sector uses around 35,000 tons of high-quality, low-polluting steam coal each year
- Shipping coal to the UK produces up to five times more Co2 emissions than using domestically mined coal.
- The heritage rail sector contributes more than £600m a year to the UK economy and employees 4,000 people alongside the support of more than 22,000 volunteers.
- Heritage rail generates 13 million visits a year and is vital for the tourism economy of areas throughout the UK; towns like Porthmadog, Swanage, Bridgnorth and Pickering all depend upon their railway as an anchor for their visitor offer.
Not all coal is the same
Steam locomotives use high-quality, low pollution coal that produces very little smoke. Most of what comes out of a steam locomotive chimney is steam – harmless water vapour.
Steam coal produces large amounts of energy and high temperatures that can be harnessed by a locomotive. It is very different to the house coal that most people are familiar with, which burns at lower temperatures and produces more emissions. The chemical make-up and composition of the two types is not the same at all.
In the region of eight million tonnes of coal is still used every year in the UK by industries like steel and cement. That is in addition to a resurgent demand for power generation as a result of the war in Ukraine.
Some of the highest quality, lowest polluting steam coal in the world can be found right underneath our feet in the UK. Other countries do not have access to such high-quality resources and burn lower grade coals, like lignite, for energy production that create far greater emissions and are rightly considered to be polluters of global concern. Again, comparing this kind of energy production with the use of steam coal by locomotives is a complete misnomer.
What the HRA is doing
The Heritage Railway Association is leading the work to ensure that a sustainable source of steam fuel is available into the future. We're sharing our research and collaborating with other heritage coal users including road steam, maritime steam and the craft metalworking sector. Working together in such a way is vital to success.
The HRA has been in regular contact with potential sources of coal and has also been engaging with elected representatives in all UK governments. President of the HRA Lord Faulkner of Worcestor has instigated debate in the House of Lords.
Heritage Railway Association Chief Executive, Steve Oates, said: “There are positive signs that UK governments have a growing understanding of just how vital the future of steam traction is to the cultural heritage and tourism economy of the UK. We need governments to look sensibly at the controlled extraction of high-quality UK steam coal specifically for responsible, low-volume users like heritage rail as the most sustainable and environmentally conscious solution available right now.”
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