Initial bio-coal trials show promise as HRA member railway takes the lead.


Heritage Railway Association member, the Bure Valley Railway has held the most extensive trials of bio– coal on a heritage steam line in the UK to date.

The trials, a cooperation between members of the Advanced Steam Traction Trust (ASTT), Bure and HRA took place over two days, Friday 11th June and Monday 14th June.

The 10.15 departure to Wroxham on the Friday burnt the usual Welsh coal from Ffos y- fran as a base comparator under test conditions, on the narrow gauge line.

The second round trip test train burnt Homefire Ecoal50 and departed Aylsham around 14:00. Monday saw engines fire with Briteflame and Homefire Ovals. All three products are from a range of manufactured smokeless fuel samples given to the Bure Valley Railway for the trials by CPL Industries.

Andrew Barnes, Managing Director of the Bure Valley Railway explained careful measurements were taken during the experiment: “Fuel in the tender was weighed, the amount of water consumption and ash left in the ash pan and smoke box were also measured. Tranducers were rigged to a computer in the lead carriage to measure smoke box vacuum, exhaust performance, and speed. All three fuels functioned well but Homefire Ecoal50, made up of 50% biomass, notably crushed olive husks which would otherwise end up in landfill with the associated risks of methane, and 50% traditional solid fuel fines, was an unqualified success giving the same performance as our usual Welsh coal whilst emitting up to 40% lower emissions.”

ASTT produced the test protocol, provided the test equipment and supervised the trials.

John Hind, Chair ASTT said: “We are not only looking at performance here but how the bio-fuel burns and what will be acceptable to passengers? Homefire Ecoal50 is the nearest to recreating that unique ambience visitors expect recreating the smell of heritage steam.”

The results from the trials were as follows: Homefire Ecoal50 came out on top with an exact match for the performance of coal, Briteflame showed 80- 85% of the performance of coal but with significantly higher ash output. Homefire Ovals had 95% of the performance of coal.

HRA’s CEO Steve Oates attended the event. He said: “It’s excellent to see one of our member railways taking the lead. The timing couldn’t have been better. As carbon came under the spotlight at the G7 summit, a UK steam railway has been testing an alternative to fossil fuel. Although heritage steam only produces 0.023% of total UK carbon emissions we continue to be very focussed on finding ways to reduce this further.”

Andrew Barnes, MD of Bure Valley Railway added: “The trials have been a positive step forward for the future of Heritage Steam and suggest that, certainly for 15-inch gauge lines, we now have 2 viable alternatives to coal. More trials will of course be needed under controlled conditions for larger narrow-gauge and standard gauge steam. We are all in this together and we want to find a solution that will work for the lines that use a couple of thousand tonnes of coal through to the operations like Bure Valley using around 100 tonnes a year.”

Commenting on their involvement with the trials, Julian Martin, Sales Director at CPL Industries said: “We are delighted to be involved in the project with the HRA, Bure and ASTT and are pleased with the results. CPL industries is keen to play its part in supporting the heritage industry in its journey to transition to renewable biofuels. Homefire Ecoal50 is a second generation biofuel and we are working towards manufacturing a 100% renewable smokeless fuel made from unwanted biomass materials, which could be tailored to meet the unique requirements of different types of steam engines.

CPL industries currently imports 200 thousand tonnes of coal a year for use by our industrial, domestic and heritage customers and we feel uniquely placed to play a key role in helping our customers move towards a low carbon and renewable future.”

The trials were also attended by a representative of Network Rail. The HRA is committed to supporting further testing of bio-fuels and working with member railways, Network Rail, the National Railway Museum (part of the Science Museum Group), ASTT and bio-fuel producers to find an industry wide solution that will eventually lead to a carbon free future.

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