An old drinking buddy of mine in Bolton was enormously clever and was sponsored through his chemistry degree by British Steel, as it was still called in the mid-1990’s. After inevitably getting a first, he decided not to take a job with them as he “didn’t want to spend his life in a steel works in Rotherham or Scunthorpe”, so he did a PhD in something difficult and got taken on by a big bank in London. He’s now head of something very important and doubtlessly earns a salary several orders of magnitudes higher than a chemist in the steel industry so on reflection he probably made the right move. But it also illustrates how jobs in industry can appear unappealing when clever, highly numerate people are in such high demand in areas of the economy that pay far more and are perceived as being more dynamic than traditional industries**.
Fast forward 20-25 years and the aforementioned works at Scunthorpe is back to being owned by an entity known as British Steel, having more recently been owned by Corus and then Tata. In reality, British Steel is owned by the Chinese Jingye Group, having nearly collapsed recently, which I find ironic as one of the reasons cited for the collapse in business that closed the Redcar steelworks was cheap Chinese steel flooding the market.
I won’t pretend to understand the economics of global steelmaking, but it’s still regarded as a strategically important asset in many countries. Well, maybe not the UK, where it’s regarded as a ‘sunset industry’, so I’ll be pleasantly surprised if this place is still going in 20 years time. If it is, it’ll be in a vastly reduced form, and that shrinkage has already started.
The works covers 2800 acres and has an extensive internal rail network that on certain weekends, the Appleby and Frodingham Railway Preservation Society (who are based on the site) operate rail tours on. I went round previously in 2009, when the site was under the ownership of Corus and you can read my post on that visit here. I’d been meaning to revisit for some time, but never got round to it, so I booked to go again in May this year (2020), but then Coronavirus happened so that went for a ball of chalk. Anyway, I managed to rebook for August and went for another – socially distanced and suitably masked – brake van tour of the works.
I spent my first visit in 2008 marvelling at the size and seemingly infinite complexity of the place, but this time I had more time to take in the details as I was less overwhelmed. Every visit is different due to the rail tour having to squeeze in among the operational trains that run on the internal railway 24/7, so although we followed a more or less similar route to last time, there were some bits we didn’t see last time and some bits we didn’t see again, for instance we managed to briefly go inside a couple of sheds last time.
I’d highly recommend going on the tour, it’s completely unique, and other than getting a job on the site, the only way you will get a complete tour of a modern steelmaking plant. If you’ve any interest in industrial subjects, or want something unusual to look at and photograph, then you really should be going on this tour.
There’s no particular logic to the sequence of photographs in their and the next few posts as some bits of track we ended up travelling along more than once, so this is just a selection of sights that I saw.
**STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths – initiatives in education to make to improve the perception of careers in science and engineering. It was STEM, but Arts has been added into it recently, which is arguably unrelated from a numeracy sense, but if I squint a bit I can see the benefit of it being added. I’m speaking here as someone with an engineering degree who has spent 25 years working in engineering and manufacturing, but an interest in the arts.