We need to decarbonise rail today

To reach Net Zero by 2050, we need to decarbonise rail now, says Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association.

This article first appeared as an advertorial in Prospect Magazine in July 2021.

The past 18 months of the Coronavirus pandemic have been incredibly hard for everyone, but it has also provided the opportunity for business to show its best, supporting people, communities and the economy in difficult times. Nowhere is this more true than in the UK’s railway industry, which has been working intensively during lockdown and restrictions to move key workers and goods around the country. Rail helped keep the economy moving whilst many other sectors were unable to operate through no fault of their own. We appreciate the Government’s support for rail in this time.

Looking to the economic recovery, rail can play a similarly important role. With the economy opening up again, we believe the public will again look to travel. So we should not take our ‘foot off the pedal’ when it comes to rail investment.

Crucially, with COP26 on the horizon, and a decarbonisation target of Net Zero by 2050, we will need our rail system more than ever. Rail is already a low carbon mode of mass transit, contributing to just 2.5% of greenhouse gas emissions from transport and only 0.6% of total UK emissions. However, the Government has set a target of removing diesel-only trains from the network by 2040, meaning there will need to be more electrification and low carbon rolling stock, using hydrogen and battery.

A study by Network Rail - which owns, operates and develops the UK’s railway infrastructure - has shown that to decarbonise the 15,400 kilometres of unelectrified railway lines in the UK, 11,700km would need to be electrified, with 400km for battery, 900km for hydrogen and 2,300km where multiple options will need to be considered. So we need to begin a rolling programme of electrification work now. There are currently no major active construction schemes for electrification in England and without further work soon, we will start to lose skilled expertise and capabilities in the industry. Past schemes have shown that taking a ‘stop-start’ approach increases costs, whereas a rolling programme of electrification could cut costs by up to 50% when compared with past schemes. This view is backed by Parliament’s Transport and Public Accounts committees.

Support for hydrogen and battery technology will also be required. There are a number of hydrogen and battery train trials in the UK and the technology is now developed enough that the industry could begin work on a fleet order. The average life of rolling stock is around 30 years, so we need to see these fleet orders now. 

With COP26 fast approaching, we urge the Government to commit to further electrification and fleet orders for hydrogen and battery trains before November. This will enable the UK to take a global leadership role at COP26 in calling for decarbonised transport around the world and help the Government to deliver on its ‘build back better and cleaner’ agenda.


About RailDecarb21

RIA’s Rail Decarbonisation 2021 Campaign is calling for a specific commitment from Government to decarbonise the rail network, through a rolling programme of electrification and fleet orders for hydrogen and battery trains, ahead of COP26 in November 2021.

Find out more here

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