“We’re closing in on phasing out coal entirely from our power system by 2025 as our renewables sector goes from strength to strength on our path to becoming the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions,” a government spokesperson told The Independent
Cumbria Coast’s Coal Comeback?
Whitehaven in Cumbria could become the location for the UK’s first new deep coal mine for over 30 years. In the first of two articles examining the pivotal role of rail in the project, GRAEME PICKERING looks at the infrastructure changes which would be necessary to the Cumbrian Coast route.
Everybody says: 'you're mad to even think about it - why would you want to build a new coal mine?’
West Cumbria Mining Chief Executive Mark Kirkbride recounts an often-heard first reaction to his company's plans. In an area where the nuclear industry' is a major employer, and coal has largely been forgotten about for the past three decades, you could be forgiven for thinking that such a concept was rather fanciful.
Travelling by train today along the Cumbrian Coast, it's difficult to imagine that the railway here was an important artery in transporting coal from local mines, the remains of which are now just disused relics.
But at an office in the shadow of the surviving pithead wheel at Haig Collier)', in Whitehaven (Cumbria's last deep pit, closed in 1986), West Cumbria Mining (WCM) is working on proposals for a new deep mine that would be located just a couple of miles away.
If the project is approved by Cumbria County Council, Woodhouse Colliery could be in production by 2021, ultimately supplying two to three million tonnes a year of coking coal for steel making. This would be carried in six trains a day to Redcar Bulk Terminal on Teesside, from where it would be shipped to customers in Europe and beyond.
In stark contrast to the declining demand for steam coal for energy production, WCM has identified a healthy export market for coking coal, which it says is down to a global shortage of producers.
"There's a business case," Kirkbride continues. "It's now' a valuable commodity, and there's quite a lot of it left here in Cumbria. It's an area where mining existed for hundreds of years until the last colliery closed in 1986, so we're not reinventing the wheel. It's not a greenfield project - it's almost a new extension of what was mined before."
WCM has been working on the project since 2014, investing more than £23 million on its development, including offshore and onshore exploration.
Woodhouse Colliery' would be created using the access tunnels to old anhydrite workings at the former Sandwith Drift Mine, on the edge of Whitehaven. Until 2004, the site was occupied by the Marchon chemical works.
Coal traffic is no stranger to the Cumbrian Coast Line. Merry-go-round trains were a familiar sight into the 1980s. When mining was still taking place in the county. On August 12 1982, 47190 heads a southbound MGR working towards St Bees station. It is heading onto double track, which is the only passing loop between Whitehaven and Sellafield. The siding for the proposed Woodhouse Colliery would be located near the ridge of hills in the distance. CHRIS DAVIS.
Studies have determined that sufficient coal reserves could be accessed to sustain mining operations for at least 50 years.
"For the lifetime of the mine, we will need to use the railway. And it's the most critical part of our logistics because if that doesn't work and we can't move coal by trains on a daily basis, the mine doesn't work. It's probably the most important part of the project that we don't directly control," says Kirkbride.
"One of the things that actually makes the project realistic and viable is that we have access to existing infrastructure. There are lots of projects where actually the biggest capital cost is the infrastructure required. We have to move everything by rail - one: because of the volume of material; but two: we wouldn't be able to get planning if it was a road solution."
An agreement has been reached with Freightliner to transport the coal to Redcar. With the mine in full production, six trains a day would operate Monday-Friday. Design work is already under way for a single-track siding to be connected to the mine by a 1.4 - mile coal conveyor buried in a concrete-lined channel. A high-speed loader would allow the filling of empty trains to be completed in around 45 minutes.
Kirkbride envisages that the trains will consist of 23 wagons which will be part of a dedicated fleet for VVCM. He adds that the company's aim is for loading to have as little impact as possible on local residents and surroundings.
"Our coal doesn't see the light of day until it's dropped into the wagon. Everything else is covered so that there is no dust and there's no gas - there's no contamination at all.
"Our train movements and train loader operation is daytime only. No operations on a Sunday lightly only on Saturday mornings, so it's in that normal operating window of existing train movements. The train loader site is screened with planting and hedges. It's in an acoustically enclosed building, so we're doing everything we can to mitigate those impacts."
It's not just factors related to loading which can prove a concern to people living close to the railway. As reported in RAIL 849 (March 2018), during the operation of Class 37s on the Cumbrian Coast route, concerns were expressed over the noise of the locomotives themselves.
Kirkbride is keen to reassure people that trains serving the colliery will have quieter motive power, most likely in the form of Class 66s or Class 70s.
"We have really encouraged people to look at what modern freight looks like, because everybody believes that it's clunky old wagons that are all banging and clattering. They don't really understand that when you stand next to a modem coal train being loaded or unloaded, this coal isn't like big lumps, it's almost like sharp sand - so it flows into a wagon and you could stand next to it and have a perfectly normal conversation. Likewise, the train is creeping through the loader at a couple of miles an hour, if that. And as we know, modem locomotives are very quiet.
"Our coal is quite low-density, which means that we don't overweight the train, we actually run out of volume. We would like to get as much as we can into every train to maximise cost effectiveness, so we're looking at whether we can increase the volumetric capacity.
"I guess that sounds quite similar to if you think about wood and ail of the biomass that's gone around with Drax. We're not quite moving that extremity, but we're certainly looking at how do we maximise every little bit that we can within each train."
For the past two years, Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has led the Cumbrian Rail Programme Board (CRPB) - working with the Department for Transport for the North and Network Rail - to make the case for improvements to the Cumbrian Coast Line which would allow it to realise greater potential for freight and passenger traffic The route has been branded the 'Energy Coast Line', to signify the area's importance within that sector. West Cumbria Mining, Sellafield Ltd, the Low Level Waste Repository (LLWR) and National Grid are board members, along with Network Rail and Cumbria County Council.
"The line is absolutely critical to the growth in West Cumbria," says Jim Jackson, from the LEP.
"Unique landscape and heritage means that roads are not a viable option. We have a significant opportunity for advanced industry in that area, and this is a key conduit for us to facilitate that growth."
Freight on the line currently consists of regular weekday traffic to Sellafield and the LLWR site at Drigg; movements to and from the ports at Workington and Barrow (both have a history of handling material for onward transport by train to the two nuclear sites, ah hough Workington currently has a more consistent flow of rail traffic); and trains six days a week at the Petroineos Fuels terminal at Dalston (south of Carlisle), running to and from the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland and Carlisle New Yard.
The current configuration of signalling and track on the Cumbrian Coast Line has been highlighted by the Cumbrian Rail Programme Board, which is working to develop a business-led plan for better freight and passenger use of the route. Semaphore signals guard the northern end of Barrow-in-Furness station on January 19 2018, as Northern 37403 Isle of Mull (Wired from DRS) awaits departure with a Carlisle-bound service. GRAEME PICKERING.
However, in order for the route to cope effectively with an increase in traffic the CRPB has identified a number of potential changes to track and signalling, much of it aimed at reducing conflict of movement.
The proposals include the lengthening of sidings and changes to movements at PC trainees Fuels, installation of additional signals between Wigton and Maryport to shorten the permitted distance (headway) between trains, changes to movements and infrastructure at Maryport station, the installation of a passing loop at Whitehaven, and some double track or additional loops between here and Sellafield (this section was built as single track and has only one passing loop at St Bees station).
Also highlighted for consideration is platform lengthening to accommodate longer trains at Sellafield station (used by many of the workforce at the adjoining nuclear site), and a review of line speeds at Parton. A section of line north of Parton station runs along the sea wall, and was reduced to single track with a permanent speed restriction of 15mph due to coastal erosion. Last year, Network Rail brought in 20,000 tonnes of stone to reinforce sea defences there.
If the West Cumbria Mining project is given the go-ahead, improvements necessary for colliery traffic will be included in the first phases of work. NR says a variety of upgrades will be involved to facilitate the additional freight paths needed, adding that it is working with the DfT, Cumbria County Council and Cumbria LEP to secure funding for the next stage of the upgrade project.
An early stage business case was submitted to the DfT last summer. It is estimated that £10m will be required to progress the plans through the GRIP process (Governance for Railway Investment Projects). Cumbria LEP has committed over Elm of its Government Growth Deal funding towards this, with the Government being asked for £9m. Depending on the solutions that are agreed, the work itself has been roughly costed at £150m to £250m, a proportion of which will come from businesses.
"We believe that this is a very, very strong case" adds Jackson. "It's very much about economic growth and it's been put together by businesses to facilitate businesses, but also with an eye on the movement of passengers and the encouragement of passenger traffic as well. There's a great combined case - it gives us a really strong return for a relatively small investment in the railway infrastructure."
Last year, the DfT expressed its eagerness to encourage market-led proposals for rail improvements. Jackson feels that the Energy Coast Rail Upgrade Project has already broken new ground in this direction.
"The feedback I'm getting is that it's unique in terms of the range of people who are collaborating here, and the fact that all the businesses have really thrown their hat into the ring and are right behind the programme - with their own money, with their flexibility, and with sharing their business plans.
"I think that with their level of collaboration and the broad group we have working on it, along with the support from the local councils, the county council and all the MPs, there are very few projects in the UK that carry as diverse and as committed a team of people for driving them through. And I think that is fundamental to our success.
"Ultimately, to make the cost-effective case we have ensured that everybody has played their part in offering flexibility, to ensure that we maximise the use of the railway but minimise the upgrades that are required so that we can make the very strongest case. It has been great to see the flexibility offered by everybody, to make sure that the passenger and freight services integrate to make the best use of the upgraded lines."
In the longer term, Jackson suggests that this could even lead to cargo from a number of local customers being carried on a single train.
"We have it in our business case as an opportunity. At this stage we haven't further advanced talks because our focus has been on getting the business case pulled together, finalised and through, but it's something that we are all committed to and will continue to talk together as a programme board as things develop over the coming months and years.
"I think it's a very real prospect, and I think the freight operators have been great in being the catalyst in encouraging some of that discussion. That could be another first that we could demonstrate in Cumbria."
It is anticipated that work to prepare the line for coal traffic will take 12 to 18 months to complete. WCM predicts the value of exports from Woodhouse Colliery will be £2.5bn in its first ten years, and Jackson says this illustrates how important new rail-linked industry in Cumbria can be to the UK economy as a whole.
"The end result is the coal mine will, in value terms, be contributing about 1% of the UK exports. Very material value, along with the 500 jobs it creates in West Cumbria," he says.
He is adamant that the overall upgrade must be delivered promptly to avoid stifling West Cumbria's prospects: "There's an awful lot of business and economic growth dependent on this and we mustn't become a barrier, delaying them to be able to get their goods to market and get the work under way.
"Three to five years is our absolute maximum timetable, and we're going to have to keep pushing very hard to keep this programme moving very quickly."