Locomotive coal

This forum is for the discussion of all railway subjects that do not include the LNER, and its constituent companies.

Moderators: 52D, Rlangham, Atlantic 3279, Blink Bonny, Saint Johnstoun, richard, Tom F

Post Reply
Pyewipe Junction
GER D14 4-4-0 'Claud Hamilton'
Posts: 373
Joined: Thu Sep 21, 2006 5:53 am
Location: Canberra, Australia

Locomotive coal

Post by Pyewipe Junction » Mon Dec 02, 2019 11:55 am

It seems to be an accepted fact that the quality of coal available to the railways started to decline some time after WW I and became a serious issue during and after WW II. I don't know whether this was because of shortages, or high prices that the railways refused to pay. It's always seemed a bit strange to me though, given the vast coal reserves that the UK had (and still has). Why didn't the railway companies do the obvious thing and simply acquire coal mines to ensure continuity of supply?

john coffin
GNR C1 4-4-2
Posts: 753
Joined: Mon Sep 19, 2011 12:24 am

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by john coffin » Mon Dec 02, 2019 10:12 pm

Many Railway shareholders bought into mines, or owned mines from the very beginning, i.e Stephenson, and indeed for many years
the GNR ran the largest coal supply operation in London, managed and owned by the brother of the General Manager of the GNR,
Seymour Clarke. Most railways were started by mine owners desperate to get their product to market, however at the time,
loco coal was not considered so important.

Later as railways became more extensive, and locos more sophisticated, more specific coals became asked for, ie Welsh,
or Yorkshire main for loco usage, but the shareholdings were still often entwined, So I am not sure that cost was not
all that it has been suggested. The aim with evolution of steam engines was economy, but mainly to do with labour costs.
For a long time coal handling required many men to load wagons, then offload, and re-load into locos. Thus the engineers
looked to reduce these costs by making the locos more efficient.

After WW1, the mines were de-regulated since the government had controlled them during the war, that meant that like
the railways,the mines were run down and not properly maintained, nor paid for properly. Then came the post war depression,
which lead to the General Strike in 1926, which caused many mines to consider joining together, and at the same time, the
railways did not have enough money(not least the LNER) to take on another capital intensive industry.

Whilst after WW2 the mines were nationalised, and steam was on the list to be stopped, so it could not have happened.

Paul

Pyewipe Junction
GER D14 4-4-0 'Claud Hamilton'
Posts: 373
Joined: Thu Sep 21, 2006 5:53 am
Location: Canberra, Australia

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by Pyewipe Junction » Mon Dec 02, 2019 11:18 pm

john coffin wrote:
Mon Dec 02, 2019 10:12 pm
Many Railway shareholders bought into mines, or owned mines from the very beginning, i.e Stephenson, and indeed for many years
the GNR ran the largest coal supply operation in London, managed and owned by the brother of the General Manager of the GNR,
Seymour Clarke. Most railways were started by mine owners desperate to get their product to market, however at the time,
loco coal was not considered so important.

Later as railways became more extensive, and locos more sophisticated, more specific coals became asked for, ie Welsh,
or Yorkshire main for loco usage, but the shareholdings were still often entwined, So I am not sure that cost was not
all that it has been suggested. The aim with evolution of steam engines was economy, but mainly to do with labour costs.
For a long time coal handling required many men to load wagons, then offload, and re-load into locos. Thus the engineers
looked to reduce these costs by making the locos more efficient.

After WW1, the mines were de-regulated since the government had controlled them during the war, that meant that like
the railways,the mines were run down and not properly maintained, nor paid for properly. Then came the post war depression,
which lead to the General Strike in 1926, which caused many mines to consider joining together, and at the same time, the
railways did not have enough money(not least the LNER) to take on another capital intensive industry.

Whilst after WW2 the mines were nationalised, and steam was on the list to be stopped, so it could not have happened.

Paul
That doesn't really address the question of where the good coal went to. If, as you say, the railways were already shareholders in mines, then they ought to have had some rights to good-quality coal.
Last edited by Pyewipe Junction on Tue Dec 03, 2019 12:37 am, edited 1 time in total.

john coffin
GNR C1 4-4-2
Posts: 753
Joined: Mon Sep 19, 2011 12:24 am

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by john coffin » Tue Dec 03, 2019 12:48 am

Maybe the question is not where the good coal went to, rather was there very much really good coal anyway?

Mainline coal and branch coals were two different items in many places. The A3's and 4's tended to be carefully
prepared, as were the top link GWR ones.

Personally I have always felt that a lot of the stuff about coal was about the labour involved in making it suitable
for loading on the locos. It was handled a couple of times from leaving the coal face to getting to the coaling station
and of course if it was "dropped" then that would have an impact on the size and "QUALITY" of the coal going in to the
tender. There are stories of drivers and firemen as it were choosing which coal to use once loaded, often they broke
it up,mainly I would guess for easier firing, but also perhaps to get the best from it. Given the time it took to become
a driver, one would assume that a lot of skill evolved.

Paul

Hatfield Shed
LNER P2 2-8-2
Posts: 951
Joined: Fri Dec 23, 2011 3:34 pm

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by Hatfield Shed » Tue Dec 03, 2019 5:06 pm

Pyewipe Junction wrote:
Mon Dec 02, 2019 11:55 am
It seems to be an accepted fact that the quality of coal available to the railways started to decline some time after WW I and became a serious issue during and after WW II. I don't know whether this was because of shortages, or high prices that the railways refused to pay. It's always seemed a bit strange to me though, given the vast coal reserves that the UK had (and still has)...
Estimates of coal in the ground are one thing, the extraction cost for the desired grades quite another. And it is - most obviously - a natural product, there's no law that a seam that started out as a lovely high volatiles bituminous coal with minimal ash (and none of it fusible) should continue in that style.

I have a book specifically written as a guide to wisdom for the purchasers of coal; how to assess in detail the significant qualities of what had landed at the purchaser's site. The text reveals that it was compiled from the 1890s and taught in academic courses, the publication date as a volume 1921. There would not have been such effort were the quality of the coal for the purchaser's purposes not already a concern during that date span. Already the easily worked near to surface seams were exhausted. No more of such as the 'Wigan nine foot seam'...

Pyewipe Junction
GER D14 4-4-0 'Claud Hamilton'
Posts: 373
Joined: Thu Sep 21, 2006 5:53 am
Location: Canberra, Australia

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by Pyewipe Junction » Tue Dec 03, 2019 11:45 pm

My initial post was based on comments I have read in different sources. I therefore assumed that it was a fact that the quality of coal declined over the years. I was therefore trying to establish the reasons why this was so. It is course entirely reasonable to suggest that reserves of good-quality coal started to run out, but this seems a little unlikely to me, given the vast reserves in the UK.

Declining coal quality obviously led to the adoption of wide fireboxes, of which the LNER was an early user. Interestingly the GWR stuck with narrow fireboxes to the end and, of course, it has access to the so-called 'steaming coal' from South Wales. Presumably there were no problems with the supply of this.

john coffin
GNR C1 4-4-2
Posts: 753
Joined: Mon Sep 19, 2011 12:24 am

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by john coffin » Wed Dec 04, 2019 12:49 am

It is difficult for people to understand that mining had been going on for many hundreds of years in Britain before the industrial revolution
and the steam age. Indeed, the Roman's were creating charcoal, and even coke before Christ, there are architectural pits all over the UK
showing coal fires. Considering for how long Wrought Iron had been made before Ironbridge, and that English wood had been cut a lot
since, in particular, the Elizabethan time, coal was the only alternative. Kent was a main source until the IR, but was becoming more
difficult to reach the seams without the use of explosives, and of course the Newcomen/Watt steam engine pump.

As the IR expanded, the need for coal as an alternative to wood, or water power became more important, hence the expansion of mines
in other parts of the country before the development of extensive railways. As the mines became deeper, the actual cost of production
grew, thus "loco coal" became more difficult to obtain in the quantities and costs necessary.

One unconsidered point is the whole disposal of steam waste products, clinker etc, I have never seen any comparative costs of that clean up.
They would certainly have been charged to the loco dept, and thus I guess would be part of the costs of fuel in some contemporary accounts.

The lower you go, the more the coal costs, until extensive machine work started, mainly after WW2 labour was a major mining cost.
You may remember seeing in many UK news reports, that streets, or houses subsiding into unrecognised coal mines. Anyone buying a
house in Notts, Derbys is certain to have a subsidence report as part of their mortgage application, and yet new holes open up regularly,
mines used to be abandoned very quickly when the easy stuff ran out.

Paul

Pyewipe Junction
GER D14 4-4-0 'Claud Hamilton'
Posts: 373
Joined: Thu Sep 21, 2006 5:53 am
Location: Canberra, Australia

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by Pyewipe Junction » Wed Dec 04, 2019 1:04 am

john coffin wrote:
Wed Dec 04, 2019 12:49 am
Kent was a main source until the IR, but was becoming more difficult to reach the seams without the use of explosives, and of course the Newcomen/Watt steam engine pump.
Paul
I don't know where you got that piece of 'alternative history' from. The Kentish coalfields were discovered during boring works for the original Channel Tunnel in the 1890s and developed in the early 20th century.

john coffin
GNR C1 4-4-2
Posts: 753
Joined: Mon Sep 19, 2011 12:24 am

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by john coffin » Wed Dec 04, 2019 12:45 pm

i don't remake history, I actually read medieval and older history.

Whilst it is true that the "main" pits were discovered after Watkins started his Channel Tunnel exploration,
there had been pits there before, but they were often closed quite quickly , in one case I am sure because of
subsidence.

Londoners may well remember that there was major subsidence in Blackheath, during the late 90's,
and it was discovered to be from a coal mine excavation. By the time Blackheath was overbuilt,
the mine would no longer have been viable. Blackheath is where the Peasants Revolt confrontation took
place in the 14th Century, and from which Wat Tyler was taken and eventually hanged.

Coal mines pre-1700 were quite small, and worked by only a few men, and did not have winding engines etc,
so could be easily ignored.

Paul

Hatfield Shed
LNER P2 2-8-2
Posts: 951
Joined: Fri Dec 23, 2011 3:34 pm

Re: Locomotive coal

Post by Hatfield Shed » Wed Dec 04, 2019 1:25 pm

Pyewipe Junction wrote:
Tue Dec 03, 2019 11:45 pm
...It is course entirely reasonable to suggest that reserves of good-quality coal started to run out, but this seems a little unlikely to me, given the vast reserves in the UK...
Reserve estimates are one thing, the cost of extraction quite another. Once the easily extracted high grade coal was exhausted, there was a continual trade-off, optimum coal at premium price, acceptable coal for rather less. The railways were well into cost saving measures by the end of C19th, buying coal in excess of consumption in the warmer half of the year and 'stacking it', taking advantage of lower prices due to reduced overall demand.

Eventually of course alternative fuels and power supply for railway traction come into the equation. Even with steam off BR's rails by the end of the 1960s, the railway remained a significantly coal fired steam engine operation for another thirty years: but now the steam engine was a vast stationary object by a convenient river able to achieve circa 10x the efficiency of a typical coal fired steam locomotive, from less than wonderful coal.
Pyewipe Junction wrote:
Tue Dec 03, 2019 11:45 pm
...Interestingly the GWR stuck with narrow fireboxes to the end and, of course, it has access to the so-called 'steaming coal' from South Wales. Presumably there were no problems with the supply of this.
The Welsh steam coal supply became increasingly problematic by the 1940s, and post war the need for export earnings meant that much of the best of it went to the other major customer, steam ship operations. (The combination of higher fixed carbon and low ash content was a major advantage in the ship context: 10-15% more energy in the bunker than with a regular bituminous coal, and less ash to block the combustion air supply and the labour of disposal.)

This drove the GWR into a major change from Churchward's design concept, by installing much enlarged superheaters in the higher power classes to compensate for the loss of heat output from the grate. Even this wasn't enough, and the former GWR lost its steam locos first in consequence.

Post Reply