By Geoff Marsh

Dramatic drop in coal trains as mines and power stations closeas Merry Go Round Trains hit half century of operation

Published: 2nd November 2015

Coal no longer king as Scottish Minister calls for support for rail freight

Railways originated as a way to convey bulk mineral traffic from mines to factories and ports 225 years ago. They were a great way to transport heavy goods in bulk, as roads were not an option then and there were obviously no lorries around!

The railways themselves became a huge coal customer and in 1933 for example, 21,000 steam locomotives and railway owned ships, hotels and offices used 14 million tons. In the mid 1930s, around 65% of all rail freight tonnage was coal or coke and this remained at 60% for the next 20 years or about 170 million tons. In the mid 1950s, coal generated an average of £125 million of revenue annually to the railways. By 50 years ago, this has dropped to under 140 million tons, the decline was underway.

The Scottish angle

A decade ago, Network Rail worked on a major route upgrade to serve the 1973 built Longannet Power Station, between Alloa and Dunfermline and the line via Carlisle and Settle to the Yorkshire Power Stations. Longannet’s closure in March 2016 (and the loss of over four million tons of coal by rail) has now been announced and this typifies the dramatic drop in coal traffic on UK railways. Yorkshire’s Eggborough power station is also due to close and this provided 4% of the UK electricity losing yet more rail coal traffic.

On the other side of the Firth of Forth, Cockenzie Power Station in East Lothian has been demolished. It, too, used to take in substantial volumes of coal by rail.) The consultation ends on 22 January 2016. Details are on a website. (See below.)

Merry-go-round trains 50th anniversary

While coal fired power stations are closing down, the concept of shifting millions of tons of coal by rail to these generating facilities has reached its 50th anniversary.

It was realised in the 1960s, that to supply power stations with coal required an easy and reliable copious supply of coal, and this was only economically and socially acceptable by rail. Dedicated coal services started in the mid 1960s serving the new build power stations with trains running directly from mines.

Each train could supply up to 1000 tons of coal and when steam services were superceded by diesels from 1968, this quantity could be doubled. Trains would be timetabled in-between passenger services as art of the regular timetable and because these trains travelled in a circuit between mines and power stations, they were called Merry Go Round services.

As coal mines closed then the reliance on coal remained and had to be fulfilled by imported coal. This was, and still is, shipped in from around the world to ports such as Immingham near Hull. Merry-go-round coal trains now run from here and others to the power stations. Now this traffic is under threat and has been halved in the last few years.

Steep decline in 2015

The last British deep coal mine at Kellingley near Castleford is set to close this year but this has outlasted Thoresby and Hatfield collieries, closed earlier this year.

Coal traffic between April and June 2015 dropped by 61% compared to just twelve months earlier. And the annual rate of decline is 19.5% when 2014-5 is compared with the previous year. This decline has meant that overall freight tonnage has dropped on our railways.

What are they doing about this in Scotland?

Three years ago, statistics show that coal tonnage accounted for 40% of freight tonnage in Scotland, half of the tonnage moved 10 years ago.

Industry and business should support the growth of freight on rail, Derek Mackay MSP, Scotland’s Minister for Transport and Islands, has said.

The Minister made his comments when he formally launched the Scottish Government’s consultation document “Delivering the Goods”.

They said:

“I see a positive, sustainable future for rail freight where it plays a significant role in Scotland’s economic growth through providing safer, greener, and more efficient ways of transporting products and materials, opening up routes through which we can do business with the world,” Mr Mackay said.

“This is undoubtedly a critical time for the rail freight industry in Scotland with decline in traditional markets,” the Minister said, in an apparent reference to the recent reduced significance of the transport of coal to power stations.

“Our consultation recognises this and I want to support the industry as it seeks out new opportunities and to help it grow existing markets. But the Scottish Government cannot do this alone, particularly in the current fiscal climate. To make this work, we need a firm commitment from the rail freight industry and its customers to work with us and together to deliver success,” he said.

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