Creating The Circular Carbon Economy

First Irish trial of a new fuel for Heritage Railways a huge success

Heritage is big business because the tourism industry is big business. Heritage sites have traditionally burned coal, from open fire grates in historic houses to steam locomotives, traction engines and stationary engines. So how can you de-carbonise this important part of the tourism industry and yet keep everything moving along?

Recently the search has been on for a coal substitute that gives similar characteristics to coal but which does not add to the burden of carbon in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.  Fortunately, and for historic reasons (not least the desire to move away from generating electricity from burning peat) Ireland is leading the way in this area.

First successful trial in Ireland of new fuel

On Sat 24th September 2022, Ireland saw the first passenger train to be hauled by a steam locomotive using a 100% renewable biomass-based coal substitute. This was on the Stradbally Woodland Railway, a short narrow-gauge line with steep gradients. Being in woodland, the old saying ‘from small acorns do great oaks grow’ could be perfectly appropriate for this significant trial.

The fuel used was a stove-ready commercial product called ‘Harvest Flame’ that is made via the process of Torrefaction from biomass – in this case olive stones, a residue from the food industry. As that Saturday proved, this material is also suitable for small locomotives and traction engine boilers. So, Ireland’s original volunteer run heritage line has now also pioneered a first step towards carbon neutral steam heritage.

To quote Nicola Glynn, secretary of the Irish Steam Preservation Society (ISPS) “We were excited to try this new form of fuel. Our railway and traction engine rally is in a beautiful part of Ireland, and doing our bit to help decarbonise the economy is important to us. Plus, our crews enjoyed not ending the day covered with coal dust, as this is a remarkably clean fuel”.

Photos: R.P.Gwyn 24 September 2022

The ‘Continuity Biocoal’ project is a collaboration between the Irish Steam Preservation Society CLG, Arigna Fuels of Roscommon, The Irish Bioenergy Association (IrBEA) and their partners in Wales, the Severn Wye Energy Agency (SWEA), made possible by their participation in the Interreg NWE funded THREE C Project. The initiative highlights the close working relationship between Ireland and Wales (which has many narrow-gauge steam railways of its own) made possible by participation in a series of European transnational projects that have focussed on finding climate-friendly uses for low value, residual biomass over the last decade.

Peter Layden, director of Arigna Fuels said “Arigna Fuels are delighted to support the heritage steam industry, replacing the original fossil coal with Harvest Flame, our new biomass-sourced 100% renewable and sustainable fuel.  Not only will this fuel help to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the heritage sector, but it will also allow people to continue to enjoy first-hand the magnificent and historic engineering, a legacy of a different era.”


Collaboration is the key

Stephen McCormack of IrBEA said “IrBEA and its members continue to develop and promote sustainable forms of bioenergy. IrBEA is excited to be supporting this novel and innovative application of a fully sustainable biofuel in such an iconic use. The small steam engines of Ireland have played a very significant role in the development of energy production, industry and agriculture in our Island and it is important to keep this heritage alive whilst showing that a move to a bioenergy based, non-fossil fuel future is achievable. A new product for an old process, with much potential.”

The Continuity Biocoal project holds out the hope that much of our industrial heritage can avoid retirement to glass cases in a museum and continue to inform, educate, and give pleasure to future generations without damaging our environment further. The UK’s National Railway Museum is also closely following the lead taken by Ireland in this field.

Heritage railways and other historic sites have so far helped the public to understand how our communities, culture and society were shaped by the fossil-fuel age; now they can tell the next chapter by showing how we can transition to a Net-Zero-Carbon future by working together and working smarter. Saving our only home planet need not mean having to give up everything we enjoy.