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Ambition to reach zero carbon rail must be supported by action

The Railway Industry Association believes that central to decarbonising rail travel in the UK is electrification | Credit: Adobe

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive | Railway Industry Association

4 min read Partner content

The Railway Industry Association has launched a new report calling for a rolling programme of electrification in order to support the Government’s Net Zero ambitions.

In 2018, the railway industry was set a target by then-Rail Minister Jo Johnson MP to remove all diesel-only trains from the UK network by 2040. Combined with the legally-binding requirement to reach net zero carbon emissions across the UK by 2050, the decarbonisation of the national rail network has become an increasingly urgent issue. In Scotland the dates are 2035 and 2045 respectively.

RailDecarb21 campaign

Although rail is already a low carbon form of transport, contributing just 1.4% of transport emissions despite carrying 10% of all journeys, the railway industry is eager to work with the Government to reduce emissions further. However, its chance of achieving this will in large part depend on the Government’s ability to set out a long-term plan to deliver the electrification of the rail network, alongside support for battery and hydrogen rolling stock.

Last month, the Railway Industry Association (RIA), the voice of the UK rail supply community, launched its RailDecarb21 campaign. The campaign is calling on the Government to support rail decarbonisation through further electrification and fleet orders of battery and hydrogen trains, making a commitment in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November.

To use an old-fashioned rail metaphor, the campaign is building a head of steam. It comes on the back of a report recently published by Parliament’s Transport Committee, also urging the Government to act swiftly in decarbonising the rail network. And today, in a letter signed by more than 15 business, campaign and transport groups, the rail industry is uniting in calling for further electrification work.

Why rail electrification?

Central to decarbonising rail travel in the UK is electrification – and it is simply the case that the network cannot be decarbonised without further work. Yet the UK has only electrified around 38% of its network, considerably less than other similar nations like Germany, which has over 60%.

Last year, Network Rail published a study into how net zero for rail can be achieved, the Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy (TDNS), which concluded that some 13,000 single track kilometres in the UK will need to be electrified to reach Net Zero by 2050. Data shows however, that from 2019 to 2020 just 251km of track was electrified in the UK; contrasting sharply with the 450km a year, starting in 2021, that is required to meet the 2050 goal. Worryingly, there is currently no further significant construction of electrification schemes authorised in England which risks the loss of key skills in the industry.

Cost is often cited as the main barrier for Government to support electrification projects. Yet as shown by RIA’s Electrification Cost Challenge 2019 report, cost assumptions are often based on the experience of just one over-budget project – the Great Western Electrification Programme (GWEP) – despite many others being delivered successfully as originally planned. RIA has shown that electrification can be delivered at up to 50% the cost of this one project, with many schemes having been completed to time and budget since Great Western.

Crucial to achieving these cost efficiencies is a consistent pipeline, and a rolling programme, of electrification work. Past work has come in ‘boom and bust’ profiles, with large levels of work followed by cliff edges in activity. For rail businesses, it makes it very difficult to retain the skilled workers and capabilities required to deliver effectively. When work does stop, multi-nationals have to look to new markets or countries for work, SMEs struggle to survive, jobs and investment are reduced and costs are increased for when work is restarted.

Now is the time to act

So the need for further electrification is increasingly urgent – with little electrification planned for the coming years, the industry is currently experiencing a cliff edge of work. And whilst the 2050 Net Zero target seems a while away, for rail investment it is not much time at all. Train fleets have a 25 to 35 year life, meaning trains we commission now may still be on the network in 2050. Decarbonising now will also be more effective – every tonne of carbon saved today means 29 tonnes of carbon saved by 2050, and every job created now could be part of a 30-year green career.

Reaching net zero and a low carbon transport system will require long-term planning and firm commitments now. The Government can help the industry get on track by delivering a rolling programme of rail electrification and orders of low carbon, self-powered train fleets. In the run up to COP26, the UK also has the opportunity to show its leadership on a global stage by taking steps to decarbonise the rail network, creating green jobs and investment in the process.

As an industry we are ready to deliver. We now need the Government to help lead the way.

The ‘Why Rail Electrification?’ Report can be found here

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