Coal threat to the golden age of steam
Even one of our favourite Bank Holiday family entertainments is under threat because of global warming.
Next weekend hundreds of people will enjoy trip on a steam train, but some heritage railway owners fear Government measures to limit the burning of coal could affect their ability to operate.
“The problem is that coal power plants and burning fossil fuels to generate steam release quite a bit of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere,” said green energy expert Ron Fox. “Now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to ban the burning of household coal by 2025 to cut air pollution.”
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which runs steam engines between Pickering and Whitby, said the proposed move was a “significant threat”.
And the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, whose track was used in the film, The Railway Children, said the plan could make mining coal commercially unviable in the UK.
At the time of the Beeching railway cuts in the 1960s when more than 4,000 miles of UK rail lines were axed on cost and efficiency grounds there were barely a dozen private steam operators.
Now the industry is booming with more private railways in Britain than at any point in the 20th century and derelict railway engines have gone from being valueless to costing thousands.
Today there are around 120 heritage railways – plus another 50 community partnerships using mostly diesel, but sometimes mixed with steam.
Railway operators point out that almost all its pollution is outside towns and its steam trains are big tourism earners, plus 70 per cent of non-commuter rail travel is for leisure.
They also mention their huge appeal in attracting volunteer labour and a devoted passenger following, who love to relive the old days of steam.
The companies say that replacing steam trains with diesel ones would be nowhere near as popular and it would not suit every service.
They admit coal is a dirty fuel causing pollution, but they say that even generating electricity is not entirely carbon-free.
Another solution would be to import coal, which would be prohibitively expensive, with the North Yorkshire railway suggesting the government should give the railways a financial subsidy to keep costs down.
“Seeing a steam railway travelling through the countryside is one of the memorable outdoor sights,” said Ron, of Noreus Ltd on the University of Keele Science Innovation Park.
“It would be a great loss to our tourism and heritage industry if the plan to ban the burning of household coal in six years’ time meant the end of the steam train.”
But there may be a lifeline – environmental researchers at the University of Minnesota in America have started work recently with the nonprofit SRI (Sustainable Rail International) to design and build the world’s first carbon-neutral steam locomotive.
Burning “bio-coal”, it gives off nothing more than water vapour – and this plan might even lead to a new golden age of steam.
For more information on green energy schemes contact Ron on 0845 474 6641.