Coal crisis in the Midlands

Here coal is being used to test the boiler of locomotive 43106 at Bridgnorth.
Here coal is being used to test the boiler of locomotive 43106 at Bridgnorth. Photo: Keith Wilkinson

Not long ago it would seem unthinkable...the Midlands running out of coal. But that's exactly what's happening.

Heritage steam railways - which will attract thousands of visitors this May Bank Holiday - are now struggling to find suitable coal supplies in Britain.

To keep going, some are having to import coal from thousands of miles away in Russia

This is despite the fact that the Midlands sits on millions of tons of coal.

Steam railways need the right sort of coal. Locomotives can be damaged if the fuel burns at the wrong temperature, or has too much sulphur or ash content. Different fireboxes and boilers have different requirements.

Some railways had been using coal from the Daw Mill mine in Warwickshire, but that has closed following a serious underground fire. Others had used Scottish Coal, but their supplies have been hit by a financial crisis. The situation was made worse by extra demand caused by the very cold winter.

Nevertheless heritage railway operators say it's ironic that the Midlands has so much coal underground that is going unused.

Tyseley Locomotive Works in Birmingham relied for years on Daw Mill and has switched to coal from Wales. Commenting on the possibility of importing coal from Russia, Bob Meanley from Tyseley says:

The whole thing is unbelievable really. When you think we are almost in what used to be Warwickshire we are sat on millions of tons of the stuff and we just can't get hold of it at the moment.

The Severn Valley Railway in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, has topped up its supplies with Russian coal and has enough stockpiles to last through the Bank Holiday and beyond - when many families are to ride behind the line's historic steam engines.

We managed to secure about 150 tons of coal which will see us through the next fortnight. And we are hoping the (latest) Russian shipment will be in by then.

– Ian Walker, works manager

The Midland Railway in Derbyshire has been using Scottish Coal and says it has plenty left. But the railway may now need to consider importing coal again. It used coal in the past from Poland, but it created an ash problem.

Over the Bank Holiday, enthusiasts will be running their fleet of vintage coaches hauled by a steam tank engine built in 1926.

On the coal supply problem, Alan Calladine from the Midland Railway Trust, based in Butterley, says:

It is a great shame. The whole of this museum site is based on three old collieries, the whole area around us was in coal production and there is still quite a lot of coal around.

So it seems a great shame that we have got to ship it half way round the world when under our feet is probably several thousand tons of coal.