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Heritage Steam Sector: Coal

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support the heritage steam sector in the light of the current interruption to coal supplies.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and refer the House to my heritage interests in the register.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government appreciate the unique importance of the heritage steam industry both in promoting the UK’s rich industrial heritage and for the wider visitor economy. We acknowledge the difficult circumstances facing the sector in light of the rising cost of coal on the international commodity markets and are in regular communication with the sector to explore how we may be able to assist. The Government have invested approximately £18 million in heritage steam organisations over recent years through the Culture Recovery Fund.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that during the passage of the Environment Bill his noble friend Lady Bloomfield, whom I am delighted to see in her place, made clear the Government’s support for this sector and that there would be no curb on the burning of coal by steam trains, not least because only 0.02% of CO2 emissions are caused by heritage steam. But imports of coal from Russia have now stopped and virtually every coal mine in Great Britain has closed; as a result, stocks are at a dangerously low level. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the sector and me, and is he able to offer any other hope of where future coal stocks will come from?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to remind your Lordships’ House of the commitment made by my noble friend in respect of the Environment Act. In respect of Russia, in response to President Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the Government have rightly committed to phasing out Russian coal imports by the end of 2022. We think that gives enough time to find alternative suppliers, but we understand and appreciate the pressures on the heritage rail sector, particularly as it faces a crucial year recovering from the pandemic. We have been pleased to discuss this—my honourable friend the heritage Minister has done so with the sector—and we would be very happy to continue to do so as the year unfolds.

My Lords, can I raise a wider question with my noble friend? Not only are we talking about steam engines on rail, but about a very big element in society for steam traction engines and other vehicles of this kind. The key point is that the nature of the coal is almost as important as the amount. The amount of sulphur in the coal, for instance, is critical to the safe operation of steam engines on rail, all these other steam-powered vehicles, and indeed those things in showgrounds that we all love to see.

My noble friend is absolutely right; this is important for traction engines, maritime steam, industrial museums, blacksmiths and many more. I had the pleasure of discussing this with the director of the National Railway Museum last week at the Science Museum. Despite encouraging research trials by a number of partners in the UK to produce an artificial coal alternative, it is still very much in the research and development stage, with no alternative sources at present. So we continue to discuss this with the sector.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that it is a very particular type of coal that is suitable for use in steam engines? The Ffos-y-fran mine in Merthyr Tydfil has been producing such coal, but it has not been reprieved from closure. Therefore, will the Government negotiate with the Welsh Government to see whether there is a way that that mine can be retained to maintain our own domestic supply, specifically for use in these very special steam engines?

My Lords, there is no policy from Her Majesty’s Government to shut down existing coal mines. Any proposals for new coal mining projects or the extension of existing contracts would be assessed in accordance with the current statutory requirements, including at Ffos-y-fran.

My Lords, the closure of the Ffos-y-fran colliery and the ban on importing coal from Russia make things very difficult. The Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway says that the problem of future coal supplies and uncertainty about passenger numbers because of the financial squeeze mean that development projects are being put on hold. Will the Minister bear in mind that bringing coal from overseas is not only more expensive but has a huge carbon footprint?

I will certainly acknowledge that; the noble Lord makes an important point. Obviously, the situation vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine has a particular short-term impact. We are very happy to discuss that with the sector to make sure that it can get the fuel it needs. But, ultimately, the question of where in the world the fuel is sourced from is a matter for the private institutions and companies involved.

My Lords, I do not often make a mistake on these occasions, so forgive me. Can I make a suggestion to the Minister, which struck me when I went to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield? Why do we not make the obtaining of the necessary coal, for the heritage purposes described this afternoon, part of the heritage? Why do we not invest in that, including making it accessible to the public as we take out the coal required for this very specific purpose?

The noble Lord makes a very interesting point. Obviously, a number of the coal seams are no longer able to be exploited, including where we have heritage museums rightly reminding us of our mining heritage. As a grandson from a mining family, I am very aware of that. I will certainly take back the suggestion he makes to the department and discuss it.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, took some of the words out of my mouth regarding Ffos-y-fran’s location. Would the Minister link up with the Welsh Government to see whether there is any possibility of being able to get appropriate coal from Ffos-y-fran near Merthyr Tydfil? Of course, some of this coal can be reclamation coal, which perhaps makes it easier. In those circumstances, would this not be a way forward for the small train business and tourism sector throughout the UK?

My Lords, we are not aware whether the operators of the mine at Ffos-y-fran are considering replacing their screening equipment or appropriating either the Welsh Government or the Coal Authority. However, I will certainly take that point back to discuss with my honourable friend.

My Lords, I declare my interests as the president of the Steam Boat Association, an owner of a steamboat and a customer of the Welsh mine which the noble Lord has just mentioned. Can we take this very seriously indeed? If the Government really believe that we need to improve our security of supply, we have Welsh steam coal, which is the best in the world and vital not just for steamboats, but, as has been said, for tourism industries and the rest. It seems completely mad to argue that we should import coal from elsewhere, with all the green negative consequences.

My noble friend gives a very good example of the wealth of experience in your Lordships’ House. He is right about the importance of this issue. Obviously, there is a particular short-term factor here regarding the situation in Russia and Ukraine, but we are very mindful too that this is an important year for the sector as it recovers from the period of closure during the pandemic. That is why, through our tourism recovery plan, we are supporting not just the heritage steam industry but the wider visitor economy, and why we are continuing to discuss this with the sector.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the president of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. Would not the heritage steam sector, like all other tourist activities, benefit from double summer time or something similar? Is it not time that the Government set up an independent commission to look at the merits of greater daylight usage, which is supported by so many organisations, particularly now, given the increased pressure of energy costs?

The noble Lord makes an interesting point. The Government have set up an interministerial group on the visitor economy, and I will direct the noble Lord’s point to my ministerial colleagues.

My Lords, I live not far from the Bluebell Railway which, later this year, will play host to the iconic “Flying Scotsman”. That line places specific emphasis on the educational value of our heritage steam sector, and I wonder whether the Government should be investing more in this. Perhaps, as part of the discussions with the heritage steam sector, they could take forward some further thinking to increase the country’s knowledge of the value and importance of steam and its part in our great Industrial Revolution.

Absolutely. Coming from the north-east, the cradle of the railways and the birthplace of George and Robert Stephenson, I am very mindful of the approaching bicentenary of the first passenger rail. We are already discussing that with the National Railway Museum and others in the sector. It is very important that we continue to inspire people about our industrial past, as well as turning their minds to scientific challenges for the future—not least looking at clean coal and other energies.

My Lords, I think that the Minister appreciates that we are talking about very small amounts—relatively speaking—of coal towards a heritage sector that simply cannot function without it. So I would like him to give an answer on the principle of this: for these very small amounts, is it not surely better to acquire them somewhere on these islands than to bring them here from long distances abroad? I declare an interest as the president of the Telford Steam Railway.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord in that important capacity. He is right. We discussed this with the sector and, as has been noted by other noble Lords, the coal must be of the right type and suitably bituminous. That cannot always be provided from the British Isles, but we will continue to discuss this with the sector to ensure that they have the supplies they need.