There is a vertical drop, at 25mph, down a shaft more than twice the height of the Eiffel Tower, and then a 2.5km ride on a narrow-gauge train 741 metres underground. Then passengers disembark, clamber along a 300m drift – which drops a further 80m – and walk over shattered rock and disused railway sleepers for 3km, before lying face down on an 800m conveyor belt that eventually deposits them at the coalface.
This is commuting to work South Yorkshire-style, at least for the 420 men who work at Hatfield Colliery, an employee-owned mine in Ed Miliband’s Doncaster North constituency which played a starring role in the 1996 film Brassed Off.
The scene underground has changed little since the troubled 1990s portrayed in the movie, or the even more bitter 1984 miners’ strike, which started 30 years ago. Bags of finely grated non-flammable limestone are suspended from cotton bags attached to the ceilings (they should burst following an explosion). The men’s belts house their emergency breathing apparatus – technology developed for tank drivers during the first world war, but made available to the miners in the 1960s.
Tunnels that were more than three metres high when dug in 2006 have succumbed to pressure and are now low enough for most of the men to be forced into crouching positions as they scuttle to work – despite nine-metre bolts drilled into the ceilings and sidewalls. Down there, it seems reasonable to view the encroaching surroundings as some sort of symbol: what remains of Britain’s coal mining industry is again being squeezed from all sides.
Gary Craven, a 48-year-old production manager at Hatfield, is the fifth generation of his family to work in the pits after beginning as an apprentice in Barnsley in 1982. Then, he mined the Barnsley seam – the same one now being attacked 20 miles away in Hatfield, such is the size of the asset and the distances covered underground.
“When I started there were 170 pits and it was a job for life,” Craven recalls. “There are now three. Don’t let the three go. Hatfield employs a lot of local people who rely on the mine. There are a lot of reserves. There is no reason why there won’t be more than enough reserves to see me to retirement.”