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The Last of the Welsh Coal Trains (Paperback)

P&S History > British History P&S History > Social History > Mining & Miners Transport > Trains & Railways World History > UK & Ireland > Wales

By Chris Davies
Imprint: Key Publishing
Series: Railways and Industry
Pages: 128
Illustrations: 195
ISBN: 9781913295738
Published: 3rd May 2022
Last Released: 28th July 2022



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Despite the substantial decline of coal mining in the UK over the last three decades, until recently, coal was still a vital energy source for the nation’s power stations. During 2013 and 2014, coal accounted for 36 per cent of all UK rail freight, but that amount plummeted in 2015 due to the doubling of the top-up carbon tax, a measure implemented to encourage power stations to use greener fuels. With the government’s phase-out of all coal-fired power stations by 2025, many have already closed.

South Wales is one of the last places in the UK where coal is still mined and despatched by rail for domestic consumption. Aberthaw power station was the principal customer for this coal until 2017, when they turned to imported coal. This measure was taken to reduce toxic nitrogen emissions at the plant and was the beginning of the end for the power station, which finally closed in late 2019.

Coal is still mined in South Wales and is supplied by rail to Tata steel in Port Talbot, to British Steel’s Scunthorpe works, to Breedon cement works in Derbyshire and to Immingham for export. However, the future of the industry remains uncertain as we move away from fossil fuels towards more eco-friendly forms of energy.

This book looks at the last of the coaling operations in South Wales, from 2013 to early 2020, and features over 190 colour images of coal trains running to and from the mine sites along the scenic South Wales Valleys and the picturesque stretch of coastline that the Vale of Glamorgan line takes to Aberthaw.

Seventy or eighty years ago the sight of a train loaded with coal in Wales would scarcely have caused a second glance, such were the number of movements of coal destined for export, industry or for domestic heating. Fast forward to a time when coal is seen as a ‘bad’ option for nations keen to reduce their impact on global warming, and such trains are practically extinct. It is therefore timely for Key Publishing to produce a book showcasing the last such trains at work moving their loads from the half dozen remaining sources.

Although in the standard Modern Railways Magazine-branded paperback format, this is not just a picture book. The first sixteen pages provide a very useful summary of the coal industry in South Wales, the rise and fall of Welsh coal and an analysis of the remaining traffic flows up to 2020. The narrative is supported by maps and diagrams relating to coal consumption and movements which helps put the illustrations in context and enables the reader to gain a better understanding of the role of coal over the years.

The major part of the book, more than 100 pages, is devoted to illustrating the trains themselves, with a narrative introduction to the various chapters devoted to the different traffic flows. The high standard of the photography, and the reproduction on semi-matt paper, ensures that this is a quality publication and, commercial considerations aside, one wonders whether some of the images would have looked even better if reproduced in a larger format. The topography of the areas in which these surviving trains ran means that there are ample opportunities to feature trains against some dramatic backdrops, and these have been fully exploited by the author. Many enthusiasts will not have had the opportunity to visit the outlying branches where the coal was loaded, so views of locations such as Cwmbargoed, Gwaen-Cae-Gurwen and Onllwyn are especially welcome and certainly not seen before by this reviewer. As for the locomotives hauling the trains, we see a variety of 66s, 60s and even a 20 and a 70, carrying the assorted liveries of EWS, DB, Freightliner and Colas, so that there is no shortage of colour within the pages.

Competitively priced at £14.99, this work is highly recommended.

West Somerset Railway Association

The author’s introduction to this book is dated March 2020, when he was reflecting on the fact that planning permission for coal extraction in South Wales was due to expire at the end of 2022. Since then the FR, along with other heritage railways, has been watching with great concern problems with coal production at the Ffos y Fran open-cast pit, with the end of 2022 now seeming very much the end of a great industrial era.

Chris Davies grew up in South Wales and has watched the steady decline of coal extraction and rail transport in the areas since the 1980s. Having spent many years working abroad, when he retired to Wales he set about recording the trains transporting coal in as many photogenic locations as he could find. The photographs are nearly all of trains in the landscape, redolent of the unique atmosphere of the South Wales valleys and the hinterland. Inevitably, the background is, as often as not, industrial remains, former passenger stations, and valley settlements, rather than actual landscapes. Overall, the photographs that have been chosen conjure up very effectively what this now-lost industry was all about.

The book starts with a brief and easily comprehensible history of the rise and fall of Welsh Coal. Its zenith was in the early 20th century, when from 1913 to 1926 the South Wales coalfield was the largest producer in the UK, and the world’s largest coal-exporter. The author then describes the years of decline, driven by political, economic, and environmental pressures. There are separate chapters that cover the final years of the last two open-cast pits, Cwmbargoed (with Ffos y Fran appearing as a back-drop) and Tower, the Onllwyn distribution centre, and coal-fired power stations. Each chapter has the appropriate photographs and the story is well told in text and images.

As a description of an industry this is an excellent publication. The quality of the photographs is excellent, – the only reservation being that nearly all are only half page and it would have been even better if some at least had been printed at full or even double page. As mentioned, the author’s introduction and the printed publication date are 2020. The book’s appearance in 2022 makes it very timely, as Ffos y Fran nears the end of its working life. Thoroughly recommended.

Ffestiniog Railway Magazine

Rail freight enthusiasts will enjoy the book with its various colour photos, graphs, statistics and maps.

BLN - No 1405 23rd July 2022

About Chris Davies

Chris Davies has been interested in railways since he was a little boy and is old enough to just about remember the last of the steam engines in action, mainly shunting at Barry in South Wales. He grew up in South Wales and read geology at Aberystwyth University. After graduating, he worked as a professional geologist in many parts of the world, including Africa, Australia, Yemen, Indonesia and Eastern Europe. He moved back to the UK in the late 1990s when he became a Director of a London-based exploration company with projects in Africa.
He has a keen interest in photography, and it is only in recent years, now that he is semi-retired, that he has started photographing railways seriously. He has mainly focussed on capturing the railways in South Wales but has also been to many other parts of the UK in pursuit of his hobby. He has also made two visits to China in recent years to photograph the last of the world’s steam engines. He is married to Claire and lives in South Wales.

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