COAL is still the “beating heart” of a County Durham miner but the evolving business is “pretty confident” of extending its industry presence to a £50bn rail improvement scheme, a senior boss has told The Northern Echo.

Hargreaves Services hopes to power on from its traditional roots with earthworks on the proposed HS2 link after enjoying a resurgence in the fossil fuel sector.

And John Samuel, group finance director, says the Esh Winning-based business is well placed to succeed in its quest, citing the proficiency of its CA Blackwell subsidiary, which Hargreaves previously took on to elevate its status in the civil engineering sector.

The Government says the high-speed rail route will improve train journeys for passengers between Leeds, the North-West and the South, with HS2 Limited already underway on work along the route.

Highlighting Blackwell’s work on a project to improve the A14, in Cambridgeshire, and its support for operations at the Hemerdon tungsten mine in Devon, Mr Samuel said such prowess leaves it in good stead.

“There remains an opportunity - what Blackwell is good at is moving large amounts of earth around.

“It currently has two projects and they are both profitable, but there are other major schemes that require that kind of big muck-shifting, such as HS2.

“It is entirely in the design phase, so we will have to wait and see when the opportunity to get out there comes on.

“But we are in discussions with consortia and there are very few companies that have the skills and equipment to carry it out. We would be pretty confident that we could get a share of the work.”

Mr Samuel was speaking after Hargreaves revealed its financial results for the six months to November 30 today (Wednesday, February 14), wherein he confirmed a plan previously revealed to the Echo that centres upon spinning off its Brockwell Energy venture to create another North-East public limited company.

According to the figures, underlying operating profit was marginally higher on 12 months ago at £2.3m, though revenue fell from £170.9m to £150.3m and the firm recorded an operating loss of £2.7m, owing to contract legacies.

However, Mr Samuel said the results were a growth platform “for a business in a transition period”, and highlighted its enduring success in the coal sector.

The firm saw underlying operating profit in its coal distribution division rise 21 per cent to £3.4m in the period, with £2m from a German endeavour complemented by its UK division enjoying a 56 per cent rise from £900,000 to £1.4m.

Hargreaves was previously hit by the demise of Redcar’s SSI UK steelworks, where it supplied the fuel to fire the Thai operator’s coke ovens, but Mr Samuel said enduring links to coal-fired power stations, and a welcome rise in prices, has helped its progress.

He said: “Coal is still the beating heart of Hargreaves and the business has shown it can exploit the remaining parts of what is left and make money out of it.

“We are still mining a site in Scotland and there is production left to come out of it.

“There has been a better yield of good quality coal, price increases and better demand. Consumption is actively growing in the domestic market too, which could be down to people having fires in gardens, fire pits and things like chimeneas.”

Mr Samuel also confirmed the business was content with progress on Blindwells, a project aimed at turning a former coal mine into a town development containing thousands of homes close to Edinburgh, despite some administrative delays to the process.

He added: “We had hoped to have sold the first block of land to a housebuilder but that isn’t going to happen; that is going to be in the next financial year.”