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Welsh heritage steam trains could soon be running on Russian coal

Talyllyn Railway’s general manager Stuart Williams.

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.

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 (HRA) are now anxiously 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. She is 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.

“The APPG undertook an inquiry into the need for coal for our heritage railways last year,” she said. “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.”

Steve Oates, HRA chief executive, expressed the serious concern of heritage railways across the UK.

“UK-produced coal generates a fraction of the CO2 emissions created by extracting and then shipping coal half-way round the world to the UK,” he said. “ And it costs less in money terms, too.

“Keeping Britain’s heritage railways running with affordable, locally-produced coal would secure the future of a sector which sits at the heart of the country’s industrial and cultural heritage and generates millions for the leisure and travel sector.

“Maintaining consistent and reliable supplies of coal is difficult and expensive. That burden will now fall on our members, whose finances have already been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The inevitable increase in the cost of coal may well be too much for some of our members to bear.”

That the cost of adapting steam locomotives to burn alternative fuels would be far too high for heritage railways to consider, he said.

“Meanwhile, we now have no alternative but to press ahead with our work on developing a coal importing operation, while also supporting US research and development work on biocoal,” added Mr Oates.