Government plans to curtail the burning of coal are causing concern to heritage railways and other transport groups.
As part of its crackdown on pollution, the government published a policy paper on its Clean Air Strategy in January 2019. In it, the government makes several statements. On the subject of transport: “We will reduce emissions from rail and reduce passenger and worker exposure to air pollution. By the spring 2019, the rail industry will produce recommendations and a route map to phase out diesel-only trains by 2040.”
And on action to reduce emissions at home: “Burning wood and coal in open fires and stoves makes up 38 per cent of the UK’s primary emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2) is emitted by coal burned in open fires.”
It then continues: “We will legislate to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels.”
Of course, these statements don’t automatically constitute a threat to the heritage (predominantly steam) railways, or other coal burners such as traction and stationary engines. The talk is of phasing out diesel-only trains (which could be a threat to diesel-powered heritage services) not steam trains, and of cutting back on coal burned at home, not in steam locomotives, though there is a comment on the section on industry: “As legislation on medium combustion plants and generators comes into force, we will consider the case for tighter emissions standards on this source of emissions.”
However, the heritage sector is undoubtedly worried. On its website, the National Traction Engine Trust comments: “At a meeting on 7 November with DEFRA officials, we were assured that our activities came outside the scope of the consultation and strategy and that DEFRA would not plan to make any proposals that would restrict our activities or those of other heritage users such as preserved railways or industrial museums.
“None of this is mentioned in the new policy paper, although we read on page 60, which deals with ‘Call for evidence and consultation on cleaner domestic burning’, that ‘We [DEFRA] are currently analysing the consultation responses and intend to publish our formal response to this consultation in early 2019’.
“In our meetings with DEFRA we have been reassured repeatedly by them that there is no intention to curtail the activities of the heritage coal burning fraternity, but we see nothing in DEFRA’s announcement today that alleviates those fears.”
Another body that is concerned about the situation is the Heritage Railway Association (HRA). It argues that steam trains are an essential part of the heritage offering and are the principal attraction for 13 million visitors a year. Heritage railways have direct earnings of £130 million annually and they generate some £400 million for the national economy.
To get some sense of the scale of the heritage railway movement, the 158 operational heritage railways in the UK have a combined length of over 562 miles, roughly the equivalent of the distance from London Euston to Mallaig in Scotland, and operate 460 stations across the UK, the same number as Northern Rail.
In rural areas, the local heritage railway is often an important source of employment and skills training.
Evidence from HRA and the Heritage Fuels Alliance indicates that a total of around 35,000 tonnes of coal is used annually by heritage railways , along with other coal fired applications including steam boats, traction and pumping engines, steam lorries, cars and model locomotives, as well as static applications such as blacksmiths’ forges and the grates of stately homes and museums.
Even if the heritage movement is allowed to keep burning coal, its total demand may not be enough to ensure supply.
Chris Price, general manager of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR), has recently been appointed to the board of the HRA. He said: “The UK still burns eight million tonnes of coal a year, but this is mainly in pulverised form for the power, steel and concrete industry.
“Sized and lumped coal is a tiny part of coal used in the UK. If, as they propose, DERA remove the need to produce coal for the domestic market, this will mean the heritage movement will be the only major user of lumped coal, which could be too small a quantity to justify UK producers to maintain supply.”
However, support has come from the from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Heritage Rail, which has published a report entitled ‘Steaming Ahead?’ that identifies concerns about the future availability of coal for the heritage rail sector.
It offers a six-point plan for steps towards maintaining continuity of coal availability and environmental mitigation measures, identifying the risks of scarcity driving coal prices ever-higher and commenting that the potential ultimate unavailability of coal represents perhaps the biggest threat to steam traction since British Railways’ 1955 Modernisation Plan.
Without coal, the future of heritage rail in the UK – and all it delivers in terms of economic benefits, employment, education, social cohesion and entertainment – would be in grave doubt.
HRA chief executive Steve Oates said: “The APPG report highlights the fact that the true scale of Britain’s heritage railway sector simply isn’t fully appreciated. Our members attract more visitors than the UK’s top seven international tourist attractions combined – places like the Tower of London, Stonehenge, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey.
“HRA members operate almost 600 miles of track, with 460 preserved and restored stations – more than double the number of National Trust historic buildings open to the public.
“It clearly wasn’t the intention of zero-emissions targets to harm such a large and thriving sector, and the APPG and the HRA are working together to develop a practical solution.”
In a recent House of Lords debate, Lord Ashton, Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), said his department was working carefully to consider how to achieve a balance between environmental and public health protection and ensuring that the UK’s heritage vehicle industry continues to thrive. He confirmed that DCMS officials are holding meetings with DEFRA to discuss the topic, and he reiterated DEFRA’s previous confirmation that proposals on domestic coal burning would not prevent heritage railways continuing to use the fuels they need.
The APPG’s six-point plan proposes that the Minister’s confirmation is written into future strategy and any subsequent legislation. It also calls on the relevant government departments (DEFRA, DCMS and Transport) to work with the HRA and coal suppliers, to explore ways to continue and fund the long-term supply of coal.