Heritage Railways warn of coal shortage as sector struggles with fuel supply

Tap to watch a video report by ITV News Meridian's James Dunham

Heritage railways across the South are experiencing a serious shortage in fuel with a services could run out of steam.

Operators are making the difficult decision to reduce the number of trains in an effort to conserve supply.

It’s been described as a crucial in a year which the sector was looking to bounce back from the pandemic and Covid restrictions.

At the Bluebell Railway in Sussex, maintenance supervisor Andy Sabin says it's becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to source traditional steam coal,

"There's a lot of coal still under the ground that we can't use because of the mining ethics and carbon footprint.

Traditional steam coal is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to source Credit: ITV Meridian

"It's all a whole load of things that have created the situation we are in. A lot of people are struggling to find coal but, especially the money at the end of the day.

"That eats into your profits, the more money you spend on coal and it's the same as diesel. Everything is going up."

Marketing Manager Ruth Rowatt says it's another challenge having dealt with Covid-related visitor restrictions,

"We've had to be really flexible. We've had to adapt. We've had to look at all of our services and really prioritise what we're going to run, how we're going to run it.

"We're already in that mode thanks to two years of COVID. We've had all of those problems through COVID, like most businesses. We've had to be adaptable. We've had to be flexible. And now here we are again."

The coal supply issues are the latest challenge for Heritage Railways who've been dealing with the pandemic Credit: ITV News Meridian

Why are Heritage Railways struggling to find coal?

Britain is moving to a greener future and coal is not seen a part of that leading to the closure of mines across the country.

Production stopped at the Ffos-y-Fran coal mine in South Wales in January meaning Heritage Railways have needed to look to other countries.

The war in Ukraine and a reduced reliance on Russian gas coupled with increased fuel prices has turbocharged into an expensive headache for Heritage Railways.

Compared to last year, attractions are having to shed out at least double to receive coal.

How the cost of a tonne of coal has increased:

What are the alternatives?

The alternatives are fairly limited. Sourcing coal is difficult but operators are trying new fuel composites to try and keep trains moving.

Bluebell Railway are using Ovoids, just as expensive as traditional steam coal, and made from compressed coal dust with additives.

They are working well on Bluebell’s engines but they’ve been taking some getting used to for the line’s firemen as the fuel heat at a different time and rate to traditional coal.

Chris Suitters is a driver at the Bluebell Railway and warns of uncertainty over how sustainable Ovoids are in the long term.

Ovoids are an alternative type of coal being used Credit:

"Ovoids have a high ash content that tends to clogs the fire with ash. If the engine clogs up with ash, you can't get the air up and you can't control the fire.

"At its worst, you could be short for water, which is bad for the engine, and the train might stop in the middle of nowhere which is bad for the passengers.

"We've talked of various things that might stop us doing our hobby, like passengers lose interest or legislation or whatever but nobody ever thought it would be because of coal."

  • Richard Bentler is operations manager on The Watercress Line in Hampshire which is also experiencing difficulties with fuel

Steve Oates from the Heritage Railway Association is putting pressure on the Government to provide more support,

"There is a belief that coal is an old fashioned technology. It's not. There are still millions, if not billions of tons of coal burnt globally.

"It is reducing. But right now we cannot simply turn it off in the same ways that you can't simply turn off the supply of petrol while electrical generation comes in, it takes time.

"We're working at it and we're working fast. We're looking for alternatives. But right now, coal is needed by a number of users and it's here in the UK.

The UK Government says it's not aware whether the operators of the Ffos-Y-Fran coal mine are considering an extension to their current operational licences.

A spokesperson for the Government said,

"Phasing out Russian coal imports by the end of 2022 is the right thing to do. Companies have more than enough time this year to find alternative suppliers, both from the UK and a wide range of other countries."