Steam trains may soon have to run on Russian coal

The general manager of the world’s first preserved railway, which is located in Mid Wales, has warned that steam trains in Wales could soon be powered by coal imported from Russian.

Stuart Williams, General Manager at Talyllyn Railway Picture Mandy Jones
Stuart Williams, General Manager at Talyllyn Railway Picture Mandy Jones

The last coal mine in Wales that produces coal for steam trains, at Ffos-y-fran, Merthyr Tydfil, is due to be closed in 2022 and a planning application for a new surface mine at Dewley Hill in North East England was refused by Newcastle City Council last week.

The Dewley Hill decision dashes the hopes of Britain’s heritage railways, which need affordable coal to continue operating. Existing stocks of English steam coal will last into early 2021.

Without domestically-produced coal, the heritage steam sector will have to find ways to import, store, handle and distribute the coal it needs. That means it will be forced to import inferior quality and more expensive coal from either Russia.

“When Ffos-y-fran stops coal mining in 2022, there will be no scalable coal provider in Wales to supply our steam railways,” explained Stuart Williams, general manager of Talyllyn Railway at Tywyn on the Mid Wales coast.

“The main alternative coal source is Russia, which is more expensive, increases the nett emissions getting it here and puts money into the Russian economy rather than retaining it here in Wales. In addition, the coal doesn’t burn as well and can be variable in quality.

“Surely, it makes more sense to keep mining the coal we need here in Wales rather than having to import coal from the other side of the world? We shall be raising this issue urgently with the Welsh and UK Governments.”

Mr Williams said he and the Heritage Railway Association were now awaiting the outcome of the Welsh Government’s draft coal policy consultation and hoping that mining will be allowed to continue.

Liz Saville-Roberts, MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and co-chair of the Heritage Rail All-Party Parliamentary Group, is supporting Talyllyn and other heritage railways urging the UK and Welsh Governments to work together to ensure that coal does not have to be shipped half way around the world to supply heritage railways.

“What we are worried about is that the UK and Welsh Governments are offloading their responsibilities to heritage railways by forcing them to seek suitable coal sources in countries such as Russia and even Australia.

“We are concerned about the nett carbon emissions of bringing coal so far and also about the production methods used in Russia. We need the UK and Welsh Governments to think creatively to allow mining at Ffos-y-fran to continue whilst reducing carbon emissions.

“Steam locomotives are designed to burn a certain type of clean coal which is mined here in Wales and certain other parts of the UK. The danger is that heritage railways will cease to function without this reliable supply of suitable coal.

“We must keep our heritage railways going because they make such a significant economic contribution to our communities and have been particularly hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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