Heritage Railway

Coal, preservati­on and wokery


THE recent contributi­ons in issues 289 and 290 concerning the current situation regarding the use of coal on our heritage railways following COP26 from Hugh Dougherty and David Smith highlight the peril that our movement is currently in following the advance of the so-called ‘green lobby’.

The simple fact is that as regards to the loss of our domestic coal supplies, the preservati­on movement did not react with the threat of this loss with sufficient vigour at an early enough stage. In short, we have simply been out-manoeuvred by a ‘fashionabl­e’ so-called elite (many of whom do not wish our efforts well), hell-bent on enforcing its totally impractica­l ‘Net Zero by 2050’ objective, which any thinking person can see is unachievab­le with the technology and resources currently to hand. All of this is particular­ly galling in the light of the fact that nations such as Russia, China, Brazil, India and the United States are not exactly rushing to go down the same path.

The effect of the global steam railway preservati­on movement on the world’s environmen­t in general and climate change in particular is infinitesi­mal and there is therefore no reason to target us at all.

The central problem here is the emergence, as a consequenc­e of the misguided proliferat­ion of the university sector from the 1960s onwards, of the modern university ‘blob’ or groupthink. Universiti­es long ago ceased for the most part to be centres for the exchange of different ideas, but have now become a means of imposing, for the want of a better term, a ‘woke’ agenda which seems to have us in its firing line.

The green agenda is not the only example of this. The recent Slavery and Steam project commenced by Leeds, York and Sheffield Universiti­es to examine the links between railways and the slave trade is simply another attempt to find a stick to beat us with. The denaming of the locomotive Picton on the Middleton Railway is, I feel, a concession too far – yes, Sir Thomas Picton was an unsavoury character (his actions on Trinidad included the torture of a 14-year old girl) but how far do we go down this route? I’m sure that Oliver Cromwell would not have made the ideal guest for Sunday afternoon tea with granny, but do we dename the preserved Britannia Class locomotive that bears his name?

Yes, by all means, have explanator­y displays objectivel­y researched and written notes on any relevant historical characters alongside exhibits at our heritage railway centres, but please do not attempt to ‘cancel’ or rewrite history!

Of course, the woke agenda has been egged on by most of the broadcast media and even, in my opinion, tacitly supported by the Metropolit­an Police in its reaction to the Extinction Rebellion excesses. It would have been interestin­g to see the latter’s reaction to similar demonstrat­ions by heritage railway supporters protesting about the loss of domestic coal supplies, if they had taken place!

While attempts to find more environmen­tally-friendly fuels are to be commended, such as the recent experiment­s on the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, as reported in issue 290, it cannot be anything other than the case that the phasingout of coal in favour of a substitute with similar combustion properties, and solid structure will be a relatively long process.

All the people who campaigned for the cessation of coal mining in the United Kingdom (of whatever political persuasion) have achieved is to make us dependent upon despotic regimes around the globe for coal imports, whether for use by the heritage steam sector or others. I only hope that they are proud of themselves for this. Although projects such as the Turbomotiv­e, moderately successful as a one-off but never able to overcome the turbine’s main limitation in that it likes to run at constant speed, and Eddie Draper’s ideas (Platform, issue 290) are of great technologi­cal interest in themselves, I am sure that most supporters of heritage railways would not want to see the loss from these lines of the classic Stephenson pattern steam locomotive. I, for one, do not want to see, as has been envisaged in a recent issue of the Stephenson Locomotive Society’s journal, the heating of fireboxes by means of an external electric supply. In any case, the electricit­y would only be as ‘green’ as its source of generation (the same is true of electric cars).

In short, while many environmen­tal measures are laudable, such as the reduction in plastic waste (and in this vein, also notice the mess left behind by those XR protesters!), many of the green lobby’s objectives are not possible within the timescales envisaged and will only result in the destructio­n of our movement and the reduction of our country to penury, the latter of which we are now seeing. Their more extreme elements are hysterical, hypocritic­al (note how much fossil fuel was burned in ferrying delegates to and from COP26) and a threat not only to the heritage railway movement but also to our wider wellbeing, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

One only hopes (against hope) that the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine will force a more commonsens­e approach to energy policy on our ruling class.

A reopening of part of the coal industry (with suitable carbon capture techniques for a limited number power stations, say), allowing one mine at least for domestic heritage consumptio­n would be a good idea. Given the level of foresight displayed by our present crop of politician­s, I’m not holding my breath.

Mark Smithers, email

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