Trains and the challenging decarbonisation targets!

Article: Trains and the challenging decarbonisation targets!

Can trains help to take the strain and assist the UK in meeting its challenging decarbonisation targets?

(Derby, October 2020) Whilst being truly awful on many levels, the Corona virus pandemic has given the whole world time to reflect on what is important and how we want to proceed with our future on this planet. Before the lockdown, our earth was plagued by chaotropic environmental events, including floods and fires. I was intending to write a blog on the challenge of decarbonisation before our latest biological disaster.

Our world is certainly telling us that we need to change and to start treating it with respect. It feels to me, like we have pressed the reset button. Normal life has halted, and we have all been given time to breathe and consider the implications of life continuing as it was before. Everyone of us needs to take responsibility for our own carbon footprint and do whatever we can to reduce it. During lockdown, with far less traffic and aircraft flying over our heads, our earth has had some time to recover, the air has felt fresher and wildlife appears to be blossoming. We have therefore been provided with a glimpse of a cleaner future, with possibly more remote and home working and less frantic running about.

From a decarbonisation perspective, this lockdown has reduced carbon emissions from transport, but this has already proved to be short-lived. With lockdown easing, global emissions are now back up to a level that is just 5% short of that experienced before the pandemic, with London levels already the same as that pre-virus. Unless people can be encouraged to come back to public transport, the level of vehicles on the road will rise to levels higher than that seen before the pandemic, as more turn to their own cars because of social distancing fears related to mass transport environments. Decarbonisation of all transport modes is still an issue and rail must play a key part.

The Department for Transport published its first Decarbonisation paper on 26 March, with a subsequent strategy published on 31 July. They consider climate change to be the most pressing environmental challenge of our time. In June 2019 the UK was the first global economy to pass a law requiring it to meet a net zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050. As the largest contributor to UK carbon emissions, transport has a huge part to play in helping us achieve this ambitious target. It makes up 33% of the average person’s carbon footprint, and so we should be encouraged to switch from road and air to rail and other greener alternatives. The congestion charge could also be introduced in more cities across the UK, as the Government aims to shift 30% of all road transport over 300km onto rail by 2030, increasing to 50% by 2050.

With cars being the most common form of transport, how can the Government encourage people to switch their travel from road to rail, when 87% of car users believe that they need a car to continue their normal life. This is currently exacerbated and made even more challenging by the social distancing measures associated with the pandemic.

What are other countries doing to encourage a transport modal shift?

The German Government has lowered the VAT on rail journeys. This initiative is part of Germany’s plan to use rail to help them meet their carbon targets i.e. encourage the general public to shift from planes and cars to trains. To further encourage this shift, Germany will also be raising the tax on short haul flights. They, in fact aiming to make domestic flights obsolete by 2035. Unfortunately, as VAT is not added to UK rail ticket prices, we cannot use this initiative here and in complete contrast, January saw UK ticket prices rise by 2.7%. We have many domestic flights that duplicate rail journeys of less than 300 miles, a complex area that should be looked at.

The issue in the UK

Transport is the UK’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. We have challenging targets to meet (zero diesel vehicles by 2040 and net zero emissions by 2050). Rail is one of the best ways of meeting these targets and the best way of doing this would be to make rail even greener that it is already.

We already know that rail is the greenest and safest mode of motorised transport. Rail is also the only transport mode to have reduced its emissions, whilst increasing passenger and freight volumes. Encouraging people to shift transport mode in the UK is not a simple matter however. Assuming that pre-COVID transport levels return, then rail is at capacity and new projects, like HS2, are required to introduce space for more passenger journeys. Domestic flights are also sometimes cheaper than rail, often half the cost of the comparable rail journey. This does not encourage people to make an environmentally friendly decision. Rail is also generally not attractive to UK travellers; it needs to give people what they want in order to encourage modal shifts:

  • Value for money
  • A seat, preferably a comfortable one
  • Good punctuality 
  • Reduced journey time

Electric trains are usually more attractive, being twice as reliable as diesel trains, faster, quieter and cheaper in the long term. They can also generally carry more passengers, ensuring additional capacity and more chance of a seat.

80% of trains running across Europe are electric, however this figure is only 35% in the UK. Electrification would be the best way for us to reduce CO2 levels, however given the high cost overruns of previous electrification projects, the Government is possibly rightly nervous to undertake more of these projects.  Cost certainty is a pre-requisite if rail wishes to attract more investment.  The McNulty report attempted to address some of the cost issues but seems to have been lost during subsequent reviews.

Costings calculated by the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Task Force have determined that:

  • if no further electrification was to occur in the UK, that we could still reduce CO2 levels by 57%
  • if 1000km of track was electrified then CO2 could be further reduced by 69%
  • it would take an additional 4250km to meet the net zero carbon target using rail electrification alone. 

In 2030 you should be able to travel 500 miles on HS2 using the same amount of carbon that it takes to travel 70 miles by road or 29 miles by plane.
HS2 will encourage the modal shift required, provide additional capacity and reduce carbon levels.

Alternatives to diesel vehicles and electrification.

Hydrogen and battery traction can replace diesels vehicles but are only currently suitable for units that travel up to 100mph. Above 100mph only electric traction is appropriate and is therefore the only real option for high-speed.

These alternatives play a role in reducing our carbon levels, however the only proper (most effective) solution to our target is more electrification.

More electrification is the answer

The DfT stated in its recent Decarbonistion paper, a plan to invest an additional £48 billion into rail between now and 2024.  Included in this is a plan to electrify more railway, including on the Great Western and Midland Mainlines (previously postponed).

If small sections were electrified to join up routes that are already electrified, a huge impact could be made on carbon emissions. For example, 10 diesel trains travel daily between London Gateway, the Midlands South and the North West. If the 15m branchline linking this route was electrified, all the diesels could be removed. This infill approach could ensure the electrification of 2/3rds of the freight network.

I was delighted to see that Network Rail has also indicated, in their interim Traction Decarbonisation Strategy released to the Railway Industry Association on 21 May 2020, that to achieve the UK targets, 80% of the rail network needs to be electrified by 2050. This would double the track electrified in the UK!

Freight adds an additional complexity

Rail freight emits just 25% of the CO2 gases of road freight for the equivalent journey, however only 17% of UK freight locomotives are electric. A study by the National Infrastructure Commission – ‘Better Delivery: The Challenge for Freight”, demonstrated that electrification of just 513km of track would allow two thirds of current rail freight to be hauled electrically. If all medium and long-distance road freight was then shifted to rail, 75% of freight emissions would be saved, however the main issue with moving road freight to rail is that new capacity would be required. There are only a limited number of paths available for rail freight.
A modal shift needs to be proposed for the UK, but the EU Green Deal announced in December 2019 recognised that rail freight had a potential role in reducing emissions and advised that as a priority 75% of road freight should be moved to rail or water.

The challenges facing the UK

The biggest challenge currently is to make people feel safe using the railway post covid-19. My concern is that the railway will be so damaged, with people having found alternative ways to travel, usually by road, that this will be a difficult challenge to address.

Recovery is going to take time.  Once ridership is back to similar levels as that experienced pre-virus, then there needs to be more capacity on the railway, with the ticket cost reduced and a more reliable service provided. For those travelling longer distances, they should also be able to expect a seat! Perhaps now would be the time to undertake big projects and find innovative ways to attract the general public back onto rail!