Tuesday, 1 May 2007

towards the new steam age ...

It's no big secret that oil is running out, Peak Oil is a phrase on everybody's lips these days. Peak Oil will see the end of road transport, air travel, plastics and a whole lot more. It will also be the death-knell for both network and heritage diesel trains. But a less-familiar term also being bandied about is Peak Coal. As oil runs out and a desperate world switches to coal for its energy then coal production will also soon peak. This is going to create a very tight squeeze on coal for heritage railways.

However, steam can be generated by other means - not the mad scheme by the Ffestiniog a few years ago to use oil-burning (now of course reversed) - but by burning wood and perhaps even other biofuels. Already a few new-build and prospective lines in the UK are looking at wood-burning, it's also been discussed (informally) at the Somerset and Dorset.

There's no reason why wood-burning wouldn't work. Technically it requires more cleaning of the insides, but this is a good thing! Steam in the UK has always used coal because it used to be a cheap and readily available home-produced fuel. Peak Coal will see the end of this. Other countries with large forests used wood-burners in the past - Russia, Canada, USA and Finland for example.

The future is steam, if we survive the rigours of the end of fossil fuels of course. Even a nuclear power station is a huge steam engine - uranium is processed to produce heat to boil water to drive turbines. The railways everywhere will have to look to electrification (using renewables) or steam for lightly-used routes, steam burning wood. The forests will help stabilise the climate and will provide a cheap, local, carbon-neutral (with replanting) and renewable energy source for the new generation of steam trains. Railways will be far more heavily used with no competition from the dying road network. The rail network will expand enormously.

What this means for heritage railways is unclear. Heritage railways in the future will need to provide real transport in addition to their tourist role in a more difficult world, steam won't have the same novelty value when it's everywhere, but I'm sure the heritage railway community is already taking these changes on board and will adapt very well to the new conditions.

Expect many diesel locomotives to appear at bargain prices in the market over the next few decades!

For wise words see here!

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