To the horror of enthusiasts and holiday makers alike, Britain’s heritage railways, steam museums and traction engine rallies are facing a possibly terminal shortage of their essential fuel: coal.

The last working dry steam UK coal mine, in Wales, is soon set to close, threatening the survival of many enterprises earning revenue from transport nostalgia.

The nearest to Hasting is the Kent & East Sussex Railway, with a station at Bodiam. An important draw for thousands of holiday makers each year, it also attracts custom to local shops, hotels and eateries.

Bodiam Station
CREDIT: Markus Geiger/Wikki Commons

Threat to local business

“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,” says Matt Hyner, trustee for the Kent & East Sussex Railway. “We simply don’t know where the next batch of coal is coming from. 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. 

“We’re joining the Heritage Railway Association in calling on UK governments to pause the planned closure and review the licensing of the Ffos-Y-Fran mine to ensure that attractions which rely on coal will continue to flourish whilst minimising their environmental impact.”

“The UK has more than 150 heritage rail companies covering 560 miles of track running between 460 stations. These lines play a big role in UK tourism today, any threat to them is a real worry,” adds 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.”

Out of 12 million tonnes of coal used in the UK each year, around 35,000 tonnes go to the heritage steam sector, including railways such as the Lavender Line at Heathfield, steamships, including the Waverly paddle steamer, traction engines and steam museums such as Brede – just a few miles away. Hastings has two miniature steam railways, on the seafront and at Alexandra Park, while the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch narrow-gauge line is only a short drive across the county border.

Coal supply cut off

Bill Giles, organiser of the annual Weald of Kent Steam Rally comments: “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 & East Sussex and the Bluebell Railway will be affected, steam fairs such as 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.

“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.” 

Tank engine at Rolvenden – Kent & East Sussex Line
CREDIT: ARG/Wikki Commons

There are also concerns over the carbon footprint of imported coal, which travels thousands of miles before arriving at UK markets. ‘E-coal’ alternative smokeless fuels have been developed from mixes of anthracite, coal dust and molasses and several narrow-gauge rail companies have launched trials of the substance. Initial results have been promising, although tests to assess the impact such fuels have on vulnerable parts of locomotives, such as their fireboxes and boiler tubes continue.

Searches for alternative sources of coal are ongoing, with Australia and Colombia suggested as possibilities. The conflict in Ukraine has meant that supplies of Russian coal have stopped. 

Other worries include the threat to jobs at heritage trusts, many of which have evolved from being volunteer and enthusiast run into important businesses. Particularly important is the irreplaceable skills base involved in being able to preserve and repair such important parts of industrial history.

“We are talking months, not years” warns Bill Giles, “before supplies are exhausted and excursions on steam trains and heritage steamships become a thing of the past.”

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