Skip to content

Coming Clean About Coal

This Zoom Webinar was held on Tuesday 9th February at 7:00pm


The objective of the Webinar was to provide a platform from which the panellists involved in the current endeavours to procure coal (bituminous and low smoke) and secure its future use for heritage purposes could explain their contribution and their view of the future.

The panellists were: James Hervey-Bathurst, Chairman of the Heritage Fuels Alliance (HFA) and Patron of the NTET; Steve Oates, CEO of the Heritage Railways Association (HRA); Lord Richard Faulkner of Worcester, President of the HRA; Stuart Wilkinson, Chairman of the National Transport Trust (NTT); Paul Paddock, Sales Manager Ffos-y-Fran; and David Smith, Head of NTET Technical Services.


The Q&A’s that were asked prior to and during the webinar can be found here.


Here are the more important aspects of what the panellists had to say;

  1. Heritage Fuel Alliance: The NTET is a founding member of the Heritage Fuels Alliance (HFA), formed in April 2019 as an umbrella lobbying organisation representing heritage communities which use fossil fuels as an intrinsic part of their preservation activities.  Currently the membership includes the NTET, HRA, ABTEM, FBHVC, SBA, the Maritime Trust and the Shuttleworth Collection but representation from all sectors of the heritage community is welcomed.  At this time the HFA is concentrating on Coal.

The purpose of the HFA is to lobby government departments with regard the supply and continued ability to use fossil fuels as part of the UK’s heritage programme.  The HFA has become a member of the Heritage Alliance, a lobbying organisation with vast experience in making representation to government.

The HFA has managed to elicit from government departments that the ban on the domestic burning of bituminous coal is not applied to the heritage sector.  However, belatedly those departments are now realising the impact that the unintended consequences of the new law is having on the heritage sector.

  1. Annual heritage coal burn: The combined annual tonnage of coal burnt for heritage purposes is between 30,000 and 35,000 tonnes.  Traction engines and the like accounts for around 4,250 tonnes.  Heritage Railways burn around 25,000 tonnes.
  2. Current Availability: Supplies of indigenous UK fuel, bituminous and classified smokeless, suitable for heritage burn is estimated to be sufficient until 2022.  Other than Ffos-y-Fran there are no mining operations in the UK that are producing coal suitable for heritage burning.  What remains of bituminous coal has already been got and is stockpiled at various locations around the country

Despite support from a number of heritage organisations planning permissions for open cast coal extraction were refused for sites in the North East.

According to Government “sales of all bagged traditional (bituminous) house coal will be phased out by February 2021, and the sale of loose coal direct to customers via approved coal merchants by February 2023.  This will give industry, suppliers and households the time to adapt to the new rules.

Smokeless coal from Ffos-y-Fran is not affected by this ruling.

  1. Ffos-y-Fran: Output of the smokeless grade coal from Ffos-y-Fran is planned to cease in 2022.  Hargreaves have made an application to the Welsh Assembly to allow further extraction until 2026/7 but the outcome is unknown.
  2. New Sources: The HRA has already undertaken considerable research, led by Steve Oates, into locating overseas sources of coal suitable for steam raising purposes.  Although there is supply from Columbia and potential for elsewhere in the southern hemisphere two sources, both from Russia are the current focus.  Trial burning of Russian coal has already been undertaken by a small number of railways for which the outcome is encouraging.
  3. Distribution: Railways usually take bulk deliveries at the point of operation.  Steam Event organisers take deliveries at the Event site from local merchants, individual users or clubs buy from where-ever they can.  The HFA is researching different distribution models aimed at keeping costs low.  It is possible that stock piles of coal may need to be organised which will be outside of the established network.  

Paul Paddock of Hargreaves explained that they had a bagging and distribution network which would be available to deal with imported coal well into the future

The NTET is anxious to be party to the development of the distribution strategy, we need to ensure that all users of coal; full size engines, miniatures, event organisers and all others legitimately burning coal in the heritage movement, have access to supplies.  It is important to understand that neither the HFA or any of its members are seeking to create a monopoly to the exclusion of non-HFA users; rather they are seeking to organise the procurement and distribution of coal for all heritage users at a sensible and affordable price.

  1. Bio Fuels: Bio-fuels are being tested at a number of places around the world.  There are companies in the UK which are working towards distributing ‘Bio-Coal’.  None as yet are thought to be totally suitable for steam production in locomotive type boilers where the work rate is high; the blast jettisons the contents of the fire-grate up the chimney.  Experiments and research work continues, particularly in the USA but this is reckoned to be a long term project.

Post Webinar Note: The NTET is actively looking for products to trial in a range of traction engines and miniatures.

  1. Pre-purchase Bond: A significant challenge might be the need to fund the pre-purchase of the imported fuel; a form of bond.  On the basis that the problem of supply has arisen due to Government policy it is considered that Government should be asked to contribute to this cost.  The HFA membership may also have to consider raising funds for such a bond.
  2. Usability: None of the coal we burn in the future will be quite like the smokeless type available Ffos-y-Fran but the Russian coal as trialled should be manageable by most users according to Steve Oates.  Paul Paddock advised that Coke supplies for the few steam raising operations may be a problem.
  3. Future Cost: The future cost of coal at the point of use could rise significantly particularly because the economics of distributing such relatively small amounts will not sustain the current rates.  Consequently the number of distributors may probably fall.  Carbon Off-set might also be a cost that will have to be figured in.
  4. Exemption to burn: Representatives of Government have repeatedly advised that in banning the domestic burning of bituminous coal there is no intention to prevent it being burnt for industrial or heritage purposes.  This is not quite the same as saying that heritage burning of coal is exempt from any future policies but at least it is a matter of public record that the above sentiments have been expressed.

However, in debate in the House of Lords in 2019, Lord Ashton, the DCMS minister, asserted that whilst the government was committed to a cleaner environment it did recognise the role and contribution of the coal burning heritage sector and would work with it to develop a mutually beneficial solution to the unintended consequences of the ban on the burning of bituminous coal.  He said that the department stood ready to ensure that the community thrived for future generations.

  1. Parliamentary Questions: Lord Faulkner recently had an opportunity in the House of Lords to ask Lord Gardiner, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State responsible for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, if the Government would consider allowing mining to continue in the North East of England and South Wales in order to reduce the carbon footprint caused by importing coal from far flung sources around the world.  Despite much support from other members of the House the Minister was not moved to be supportive of the idea suggesting that plans for alternative sources of fuel should be developed.

Making ourselves known to Government:  The many contradictions and inconsistencies regarding the government’s public health and carbon emissions policies when viewed against the carbon footprint of importing fuel over large distances have been pointed out to government at many different meetings.

At times, despite carrying the collective message the endeavours of the HFA have been splintered and somewhat frustrated, no-one government department appears to be able to manage the cause of the heritage fraternity.  The HFA is seeking to create a meaningful dialogue with a single Minister by developing a list of needs and aspirations.’

On the topic of making representation to Parliament Lord Richard Faulkner advised against taking any direct action, such as a steam ‘drive by’ outside of the Houses of Parliament.  His point was that whilst this might be spectacular for some the inconvenience caused would antagonise those Members trying to get into the House who we would wish to have on-side with our cause.  Far better to get your local MP on board, offer them a day out on the footplate or at an event, let them see and feel what we feel, but carefully.

  1. Contribution to the economy: It is reckoned that the coal burning heritage fraternity contributes around £1.2b to the UK economy of which between £550m and £720m comes from activities associated with traction engine and the like.  Whilst these numbers are impressive they will count for nothing if we cannot secure continuity of supply.
  2. Educating the User: The environmental issues affecting the World are real and cannot and should not be denied.  The burning of fossil fuel is a major contributor to the problem and despite the very small amounts of fossil fuel burnt by the heritage movement there is a heavy obligation on all users to respect the views of others and not to antagonise those views.  To achieve the latter in particular there is a perceived need to re-educate users in the appropriate methods of firing and systems’ management in order to reduce visible and actual emissions.
  3. Educating the On-looker: Possibly the hardest task we need to tackle is that of being able to face up to questions such as ‘what right do you have to burn fossil fuel?’ or more potently ‘why are you polluting for fun?’. We will have to be sure of our facts, we need to know for sure what composition of chemicals and solids go up the chimney of traction engines and we need to understand how we can contribute to being a carbon neutral fraternity as far as is sensibly possible. 

To do this requires investment into researching our emissions; we must be honest about our contribution to the environment and only then we can face the onlooker and say ‘We are not polluting for fun! We make every effort to reduce the possible effects upon the environment every time we display our engines that are part of the rich historical engineering achievements of this country.  Our engines are living examples of great feats of engineering, which the public can experience first-hand, and that have led to countless improvements and developments in our agriculture and industry.  Come and enjoy them as we do.’ (A borrowed quotation)

  1. Working Together: The reality is that there are only about 2 or maybe 3 years at the most before the stock of UK coal suitable for heritage burning runs out.  In that time there is an inordinate amount of work which needs be undertaken on a wide range of topics to ensure that the transition to imported fuel and its timely and affordable distribution must be in place and that the users and onlookers properly understand each-others position with regards to protecting the environment.

Around 90% of the UK’s heritage traction engine based steam collections – including miniatures – is in private hands.  With the best will in the world, to get everyone in this huge and diversely motivated family to agree to a specific course of action is an extremely optimistic ask.  There are going to be some tough decisions to make.

To achieve this we really must come together and work cohesively and in harmony.  If you work or play with any form of coal fired steam engine, full size or miniatures – in any capacity – please support the NTET or your relevant member organisation of the HFA, in our endeavours to contribute to this mammoth task.

Collated by David Smith
Head of NTET Technical Services

The Q&A’s that were asked prior to and during the webinar can be found here.