Is the rail industry on track for net zero?

Nicola Brittain

Government and industry need to create a long-term strategy for decarbonisation of rail, according to industry experts.

Contributors to a recent webinar panel debate entitled ‘On Track To Net Zero: Decarbonisation In Rail’, held during the UK’s Decarbonisation Transport Week in March, agreed that with the right long-term strategy and approach, the rail industry could play a central role in helping to meet the government’s goal of achieving carbon net zero transport by 2050.

Webinar chair infrastructure journalist Andy Walker began by saying: “We have the technology to provide electrification and low carbon rolling stock to deliver net zero by 2050, what we need now is the strategy.”

Maggie Simpson, Director General of the Rail Freight Group, agreed, adding that one of simplest ways of taking carbon out of transport is to encourage businesses to transport goods using rail freight. She also explained that much could be done to reduce emissions from freight itself, a predominantly diesel business, including an acceleration of rail electrification (see boxout) as well as synthetic alternative fuels on parts of the network that can’t be electrified.

As Simpson explained, freight assets have a very long life, of around 40 years (compared with the 10 or 12-year life of an HGV). Although they require significant outlay up front (circa £200 million), a long term investment strategy will significantly reduce carbon.

Elaine Clark, Chief Executive of Rail Forum, also made the point that a government strategy would need to take other factors into consideration, such as the impact of climate change on landslides or the imperative to better maintain assets in the face of other changes that we see today.

Interim opportunities

Clark explained that she could see many interim opportunities to reduce carbon including the use of alternative fuels such as hydrogenated vegetable oil, for example. She said: “This costs more than diesel, but a modest subsidy might keep freight or the passenger industry neutral.” The government would have to make this part of a wider strategy.

She added that although existing diesel passenger trains can be modified to use batteries or hydrogen there is a lot of engineering involved – although they can be designed from the ground up, the cavities will likely take up passenger space which pays revenue. The same applies for freight since the ‘profit is in the last wagon’. “Lots of things are technically possible but not necessarily commercially viable,” she said.

The panellists agreed that cost is a problem for electrification since the wires will need to be paid up front, however, looking at them over the lifecycle is a cheaper way to run a railway.

Clark, who also argued that electrification and hybrid fuels would form a big part of the solution, said: “We need some really sensible transport strategy over the medium and long term and this needs to be integrated with other transport policy, and not exist in isolation.”

David Clarke, Technical Director of the Railway Industry Association, said policy and strategy that supports a net zero journey, stating that the industry needed to see strategy, decisions and commitment from the government.

“It is essential that suppliers who come up with carbon reduction initiatives are supported rather than penalised, that isn’t the case at the moment,” he concluded.

Spotlight on rail electrification

The UK is part way through its commitment to electrifying 162.5km (101 miles) of railway track between 2022-2025. However this is just 12% of the 448km of track experts estimate is needed over that time to be in line with net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Sadly, the current move towards electrification is ‘sluggish’ at best but panellists agreed that this transition offers considerable potential in the journey to decarbonisation.

Just over 1/3 of the network, currently 38%, is currently electrified, but as Maggie Simpson explained, electrifying the most used stretches of track would deliver considerable dividends. She said: “If the most used 800 miles of track were electrified, 95% of freight vehicles would be under the rails.”

She also argues that this electrification of passenger trains is something the government could promote since it would significantly  improve performance with the ‘sparks effect’ – greater acceleration leading to better adherence to timetables.