Welsh heritage railways at risk of running out of steam
Heritage railways in Wales and across the UK are facing a bleak future as stocks of coal are running dangerously low with few viable prospects of replacing them.
Many of the UK’s heritage rail companies say they are already having to cut services in the lead up to the Easter break, which is just when their main operating season begins.
Last month the Llangollen Railway announced it would be running a revised timetable this season due to rising fuel costs, with the line which runs from Llangollen to Corwen just about to welcome the historic locomotive GWR 0-6-2T No. 5619 for the season.
It is not alone in this decision, with many of the UK’s 150 heritage rail companies covering 560 miles of track and 460 stations having to do the same.
Operators are trialling running longer trains less frequently, meaning tourists and visitors must book in advance for the fewer opportunities to travel.
Heritage lines offer great economic benefits to the local economy with the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways, whose steam trains run from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog and from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, attracting around 200,000 visitors a year and generating an estimated £25m for the local economy.
Speaking to the Observer, Chris Austin, secretary of the Heritage Rail All-Party Parliamentary Group said: “These lines play a big role in UK tourism today so any threat to them is a real worry.
“They are worth about half a billion pounds a year to the national economy – mainly through the visitors they attract to a region.
“Millions of tourists take trips on these lines every year. In addition, the bigger heritage railways provide both employment and apprenticeship schemes.”
“They are also especially important to the nation because railways were Britain’s gift to the world. They were invented and developed here and exported all over the globe. They changed the world and are linked tightly to our history.”
The operators are looking for alternatives to coal, which in Wales is limited to a dwindling supply from the Ffos-y-fran mine near Merthyr Tydfil, which is in the process of closing down for good.
When plans were announced to close the mine in January last year there were concerns that the railways would be dependent on importing coal from Russia, which Stuart Williams, general manager of Talyllyn Railway warned could be variable in quality and be more expensive, increase net emissions and feed money into the Russian economy rather than retaining it in Wales.
At the time, Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP Liz Saville-Roberts, who co-chairs the Heritage Rail All-Party Parliamentary Group, urged the UK and Welsh Governments to work together to ensure coal does not have to be imported.
According to the Cambrian News 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 carbon emissions of bringing coal so far and also about production methods used in Russia. We need the governments to think creatively to allow mining at Ffos-y-fran to continue whilst reducing emissions.
“Steam locomotives are designed to burn a certain type of clean coal mined here. The danger is heritage railways will cease without this reliable supply.
“We must keep them going because they make a significant economic contribution to our communities and have been particularly hard hit by Covid-19.”
Several narrow-gauge rail companies have recently launched trials of an alternative smokeless fuel developed from mixes of anthracite and coal dust with molasses used as a binding agent.
While initial results have been promising, it is unclear as yet the impact such fuels have on vulnerable parts of locomotives, such as their fireboxes and boiler tubes.
Many companies would have turned to Russia for coal but have decided that they cannot now do so on ethical grounds, while coal supplies from other parts of the world would also entail an unwelcome environmental impact.
Paul Lewin, of Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways said: “It is a very serious problem. UK coal for steam trains has now gone and our next supply source was to be Russia, which is now off the table for totally understandable reasons. We are in a very tricky position.”