Railways can boost UK becoming net zero-carbon by 2050

Britain’s railways have a crucial role to play in helping the UK economy decarbonise by 2050, according to a new rail task force report for the Rail Minister.

Rail is already a naturally low-carbon transport mode. Despite making up around 10% of all distance travelled across the UK, rail is responsible for less than 2.5% of total transport emissions and about 0.6% of the UK’s total emissions.

However, the task force found that the industry and government can deliver a step change in rail’s emissions, removing diesel trains from the passenger network.

The government has welcomed the report.

Battery, hydrogen and electrification will all have a key role to play, according to leading experts in sustainability and rolling stock.

They note that freight corridors face a different challenge as there are currently no viable alternatives to diesel, aside from full electrification. It recommends that further work is done to understand the potential for freight decarbonisation across all modes.

Industry has called on decision makers to work together on a national strategy so that everyone can play their part in achieving net zero carbon across the economy, in line with recently legislated UK-wide targets.

Work should start on identifying levels of investment, timescales and key decision points over the next 30 years, empowered by the right structures, frameworks and policies, and enabled by a full programme of R&D in support.

In 2018, the Department for Transport set a challenge for rail to remove diesel-only trains and asked for a decarbonisation plan.   The Task Force has responded identifying the potential for significant decarbonisation of rail and making recommendations to put this into action providing more certainty earlier, and giving more time to plan, be more cost-effective and least disruptive.

Over 3,000 carriages or vehicles used in diesel passenger trains will need to be replaced or converted in the years ahead, many of which are approaching their end of life.  Electrification of key routes is likely to be the most cost-effective option for some of these vehicles, particularly for the higher speed intercity trains.  Depending on the extent of electrification, as many as 2,400 vehicles could use alternative low-carbon traction options such as hydrogen and battery technology.

The final report published today by the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Task Force and rail body RSSB, has been welcomed by Rail Minister Andrew Jones:

‘I welcome this report, which sets out a clear and ambitious strategy for the rail industry to go further and faster in decarbonising the network.

“Since 2010 operators have ordered 7,800 new greener carriages, we have provided £4.5m of funding for innovative projects focused on tackling decarbonisation, and we are investing £48bn to modernise the rail network, enabling cleaner, more efficient journeys.

“We now have practical next steps which will see the rail industry playing its full part, as we push towards the UK’s target of greenhouse gas emissions being net zero by 2050.’

Chair of the Task Force, Malcolm Brown said:

‘Britain is leading the world on setting clear targets to reduce carbon, and so it’s critical that all industries play their part. Rail is ahead of the curve on the decarbonisation agenda, and our report shows that we can align with the government’s policy for the UK economy to be net carbon zero by 2050.  We will need to fully exploit electrification, hydrogen and battery power to make this happen, but we also need all transport sectors to fully comprehend the challenge of decarbonisation.’

 

Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said:

‘There can be few more important tasks than ensuring that the greenest form of mass transit becomes greener still. That’s our ambition in rail as we deliver innovations that support the UK’s net zero carbon target. Every decision we take – from new forms of powering trains, to diesel-free worksites, or more efficient ways to heat and light our stations – is an opportunity to make a real difference.’

 

Mark Gaynor, Head of Railway Planning at the Rail Delivery Group which represents Network Rail, train operators and freight operators said:

‘Rail is already a green way to travel, cutting up to 7.7million tonnes of carbon emissions every year but we want to go further and work with the government to deliver a zero-carbon railway for Britain.

“Building on the introduction of new and more efficient trains across the railway and together with a government-backed strategy in place to enable further investment, our proposal for an independent organising body to join up the industry would ensure that this long-term ambitious target is met.’

 

Maggie Simpson, Director General of Rail Freight Group said:

‘Rail is already acknowledged as a low carbon mode for freight transport, and we must have a strategy for further carbon reduction and full decarbonisation.  The findings of this work provide a way forward which can help provide certainty for freight operators, customers and investors over coming decades.’

 

Taskforce Member David Clarke, Technical Director of the Railway Industry Association (RIA) said:

‘The Railway Industry Association welcomes the report published today, which has been a superb, collaborative effort, bringing together thinking from across the industry on how we decarbonise our rail network.

‘Electrification must remain at the top of the hierarchy of options for the decarbonisation of our railways. It is therefore essential that we begin a rolling programme of electrification for intensively used routes, with alternative low-carbon traction options – like hydrogen and battery technology – used for lines where there would not be a business case for electrification.

‘The rail supply chain looks forward to working with Government and our industry partners to move this report forward and to achieve a decarbonised rail network, for the benefit of all who use it.’

 

RSSB’s Head of Sustainable Development, Anthony Perret, said:

‘Climate change is non-negotiable, and poses unavoidable questions about how we want to live, let alone how we organise our economies and power our transport systems.

By focussing on the 2050 target, the rail industry is making the first major step to playing its part. Any future industry structure must enable and incentivise innovation and investment in significant decarbonisation to make this a reality.’