Fuel for Thought

Ian Crowder
May 18, 2022

Coal – or the potential lack of it – is focusing the minds of heritage railways and other heritage users across the UK and the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway is no exception.

Over recent years, the GWSR has used Welsh steam coal from Ffos-y-Fran which, as has been widely commented on, abruptly ceased production of lump coal in January thanks to a breakdown of its washery and the decision not to repair it.  Fortunately, the GWSR had good stock of Ffos when this news emerged.

As Adrian Showell, the steam department’s buyer explains: “We have been using Ffos for some years: it’s clean and economical and our crews have become used to engine management with this fuel – especially as the GW locomotives on our fleet were designed to burn this type of coal.  

“As Ffos was expected to close by the end of this year we were already exploring potential new sources of coal and discussing the issue with other railways as well as suppliers. With this in mind we were able to secure a delivery from the last remaining Shotton (Northumberland) stock, which was delivered in February.  However, while that meets a short- to medium-term need we clearly have to source further supplies for our longer-term security.

Neath anthracite Ovoid, Steam coal from Ffos-y-Fran and Shotton coal.

“The tragic Ukrainian crisis has also cut off a once-reliable source of suitable bituminous coal from Russia.  Supplies from there were already becoming difficult even before the invasion of Ukraine.”

The railway has also managed to obtain one-off deliveries of East European and Columbian coal, the latter being high in volatiles.  With other heritage railways, the GWSR is also talking to CPL, Britain’s largest manufacturer of smokeless fuels which is working hard with users to develop suitable fuels for steam raising. This includes its ‘Ecoal 50’ which contains biomass and which is already being trialled on full-size as well as narrow-gauge locomotives.  Adds Adrian: “We may obtain a supply of Ecoal to trial ourselves although the cost of it at present is a lot higher than we have been paying to date.”

Ovoid trials

Meanwhile, the railway’s regular coal merchant has supplied manufactured ovoids for trial.  This comprises crushed Neath anthracite bonded with lime with no bituminous content.  On 12 March, all four of the railway’s locomotives were steamed (two for test purposes: 7903 and 35006; two to work the railway’s ‘Purple’ timetable: 4270 and 7820) using pure ovoids.

Loading ovoids in the tender of 35006 at Toddington

“This was, to be fair, something of a challenge,” says Adrian. “Raising steam in the first place used significantly more fuel than Ffos.

“All four locomotives were subsequently used on service trains and it quickly became clear that the material needed a constant draught to burn well, and the engines were burning rather more than with Ffos.  That said, it needs a completely different firing technique which will be a learning curve for many of our firemen.  It also produces a lot of fine ash which had a tendency to clog the grate suggesting wider firebar spacing might be needed.  There was a lot of char in the smokebox, too.

“We are feeding this information back to our supplier and the recipe for the material is being tweaked – it will be interesting to see how this develops.”

The railway has since trialled a combination of one third ovoids to two-thirds coal which worked well and was used while working the Cheltenham Festival race trains.

Adrian points out that the economics of running steam locomotives throughout the heritage railway sector is bound to change.

He says: “While we have been paying similar prices per tonne for all the fuel we have obtained, there is little doubt that the cost will increase due to rising world prices for coal.  Similarly, if for example we burn say, twice as much fuel, that in itself effectively doubles the cost of running each locomotive: something that will affect every steam railway.

“There is no easy solution.  We have been watching with interest what is happening on other railways and exchanging information, particularly the Bluebell who are currently trialling a revised ‘recipe’ of ovoids: and we are grateful to them.  We are happy to share our experiences too, for the good of the movement as a whole.”

The GWSR currently has good stocks of coal and ovoids which has produced the rare sight of coal wagons actually full of coal.  The different materials are being stored separately so that a good record of consumption and behaviour of the fuels and combinations of them can be recorded.

Concludes Adrian: “While I am quite confident that suitable fuel will be available in the medium term, heritage steam users are certainly going through a challenging time right now. The GWSR is secure in terms of fuel supplies at present so there is no immediate threat to our advertised steam train services.  Nevertheless, the cost of fuel will rise in future (this applies to diesel fuel as well) and our footplate crews will be on a learning curve in order to handle the different materials in the most economical way and with minimum production of smoke.”

Pictures can be found here:


Media contact: Ian Crowder, 07775 566 555 or press.officer@gwsr.com