IN the once coal-rich North-East, the phrase "taking coals to Newcastle" was a definition of the absurd.

But now, what for centuries was unthinkable, has happened - and shipments of cheap Russian coal have arrived on the Tyne.

Tyne Dock expects to import up to 70,000 tonnes by December in an experimental deal with a North-East smelter plant.

It is a complete turnaround for the port, which at its peak was the largest exporter of coal from the North-East's collieries, sending millions of tonnes a year from the Tyne.

The managing director of the Port of Tyne, Keith Wilson, said the port has not exported coal since 1998 but was now delighted to have secured the contract with Alcan for its aluminum production in Lynemouth, Northumberland.

He said: "During the last two months, we brought in two shipments of low sulphur coal from Russia. The Tyne was the largest exporter of coal. We do not export coal now but it is ironic we are now starting to import it."

Mr Wilson said the deal had in part helped the port's rail division take off in the past two months, with the number of trains using the port rising from one or two a week to up to 12 a week.

A spokesman for Alcan said the firm had been importing coal for some time but this was the first time it had been delivered through the Port of Tyne.

"The company has a contract to take coal from the nearby Ellington pit in Northumberland, but the colliery has not been able to produce enough coal to power the station for around ten years," he said.

But Dave Hopper, North-East secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, branded the coal imports into the Tyne a disgrace.

Mr Hopper said: "Ellington, which is the last colliery in the North-East, is only two miles away from Alcan and is struggling to stay open."