When Tata Steel took over Corus, the UK side of the business was in need of investment. It already needed investment in the British Steel days, but somehow when Corus was formed most of the new and rebuilt kit happened in IJmuiden. No doubt Tata saw this as the reason why the UK side performed less well, and throughout the first few years plans were drawn up (and started to be carried out) to upgrade some of the kit in need of it.
One of the first aims was to make Port Talbot self-sufficient in electricity supply, and this started with the extraction system for BOS gas, which together with coke oven gas and blast furnace gas would be fed into the power plant to generate all the electricity the plant needed. After this the power plant was going to be upgraded, since the existing ones were woefully inefficient. The latter unfortunately never happened, since it was the very last victim in the final scramble to save money by cutting back on investment.
Despite all the promises of self-sufficiency, the BOS gas project did not deliver the promises that had been made, maybe because of the inadequacy of the old power plant. Whatever the case, far too often you could still see gas being flared off into the atmosphere, meaning that it was not being used to generate electricity.
But the single event that dented the confidence the Indians had in us was the rebuild of blast furnace 4. At the time we were running at a loss, and had been doing so since the financial crash of 2008, but the losses were small and the idea planted itself that with a rebuilt blast furnace we could turn this loss into a profit. Hence the plan was made to take the furnace off-line in July 2012, rebuild it almost completely from scratch, and have it back online in December of the same year.
The worrying omens started to arise when it became clear that December was an optimistic date for completion, and in the end it was a scramble to fire the furnace up in the middle of February 2013. Now there were people who said that although the project was not on time, it still was on budget; if that was the case that would have been a first for a project that didn’t make it on time. This claim could only be maintained if you take a very restricted definition of what “on budget” means. After all, every day that a blast furnace doesn’t produce makes for a loss of hot metal volume, and as such a loss of earnings. Hence every day that the restart was delayed meant not delivering the promise of a break-even or small profit.
Secondly, shortly after the blast furnace was up and running, an incident happened where a torpedo car collided with a part of the casthouse – I don’t know the details, but heard from other people that it displayed a major level of insouciance on the part of the operator / train driver. Again a fully functioning blast furnace was out of the running for more than a week when it should have been adding to the bottom line. Together with the incident of the spilled ladle in the BOS plant this raised major questions over the commitment of the workforce, however much they might protest about their “passion”.
And last but not least, once the blast furnace was producing without any further glitches, the prospect of Port Talbot making a profit remained as elusive as ever. Some months we were not far off, but in the end the statement that “once we have both blast furnaces in prime condition, we’re going to make a profit” started to ring very hollow indeed.
The loss of confidence was not total, and my boss expressed amazement that despite everything the Indians kept the faith and maintained ambitious plans for future investment, but in my opinion that’s where the rot started setting in. You can only claim so many times that if only I had such and such an investment, things would get better – presumably that’s what caused the parent company to declare towards the end of March 2016 that they wanted to sell off the UK side of the business : you can only hear the “jam tomorrow” refrain so many times before you start losing confidence completely – and as far as I’m concerned it all started with the rebuild of blast furnace 4.