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The opportunity to future-proof our rail network is here

3 min read

We can future-proof rail if the government is prepared to listen to rail users, invest wisely and think big, says Lilian Greenwood

The Transport Committee has long been a champion of rail travel. Over the past few years we have called the Government to account on rail franchising, rail infrastructure investment and the rail timetabling chaos in 2018 that hit passengers hard.

While keeping the Department for Transport’s feet to the fire on current investment, services and the passenger experience, we are also acutely aware of the need to plan for the future.

This was a particular theme of our 2018 report into rail infrastructure investment when, as well as considering the mistakes of the past, we made recommendations to the Government about further electrifying the railways and doing more to support the development, testing and deployment of new technologies on the network.

However, when the Government and the rail regulator – the Office of Rail and Road – responded to our report, we were disappointed. There was little detail on the long-term cost-effectiveness and wider environmental benefits of electrification, or how the DfT planned to support emerging technologies such as battery and hydrogen power.

Since then the industry has moved on apace and across the UK and farther afield train manufacturers are working with the energy industry and the wider rail supply chain to develop alternatives to diesel.

In the UK, work is under way to develop bi-modes where hydrogen or battery could replace diesel (for example, Aventra, HydroFlex); battery power (Vivarail, Hitachi) and solar power (Riding Sunbeams). Alstom is developing the first hydrogen-powered train for the UK market (the Breeze).

The Government is also doing its part. In February 2018, the then rail minister, Jo Johnson, made a pledge to remove diesel-only trains from the rail network by 2040. The ongoing work of the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce and the Rail Industry Association’s Electrification Cost Challenge is bolstering this ambition.

In its January 2019 interim report, the taskforce recommended a concerted industry and government effort to support R&D for bi-mode, hydrogen and battery trains and set out viable options for where these technologies could best be deployed. It emphasised that, for the main lines and large parts of the network, electrification will continue to be the best option well into the future. The Electrification Cost Challenge, published in March 2019, further boosted the case for electrification, arguing that a 10-year rolling programme would harness skills and bring down costs.

It is clear to us that the opportunity – and the momentum – for change is there.

We launched our inquiry into ‘trains fit for the future’ in April. We are looking into how rail can decarbonise over the next 20 years, what the costs and benefits are of different modes and how they can best be deployed to create a stable, sustainable future.

However, a sustainable railway is not just about the fuel it runs on but the people who work for it and the freight customers and passengers who use it. Critically, we want to hear the voice of the passenger. With the carriages commissioned now likely to be in service for the next four decades, it is vital that government and industry look ahead to cater for the needs of passengers in the future and ensure they are accessible to all.

Overall, rail is responsible for a small proportion of the carbon challenge facing the transport industry, but it can lead the way by thinking innovatively, investing wisely and putting people first. We want a growing, vibrant railway running well into the future. Now is our chance to put planet and people first and truly think big.

Lilian Greenwood is Labour MP for Nottingham South and chair of the Transport Select Committee

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