Rail Industry Focus

04.09.19

De-Carbonising the Railways

Source: RTM August/September

Anthony Perret, the head of sustainable development at RSSB, explains how railways increase sustainability through decarbonisation.

Railways can accelerate decarbonisation to become more sustainable, as long as action is taken now to plan ahead. That is what research by the RSSB, on behalf of a rail industry taskforce, has shown.

Trains are rightly perceived as being greener than some alternative modes of transport. However, the scale of change needed to meet the UK’s new, legally binding net-zero carbon target means that every sector that can decarbonise will have to. Rail is no exception, and transport overall is in the spotlight as the largest sectoral emitter and one that has not reduced emissions over the last decade.

We do start positively though. Rail is already a naturally low-carbon transport mode,  steel-on-steel is highly efficient and we are already 70% electric. As a result, despite making up around 10% of all distance travelled across the UK, rail is responsible for less than 2.5% of total transport emissions. Rail’s emissions have fallen by a third per passenger kilometre over the last 10 years.

However, a net-zero carbon UK will require a net-zero carbon transport system and efficiency alone won’t achieve this. The industry needs a step change to increase the use of electric traction and replace diesel – in line with the government challenge to phase out diesel-only vehicles by 2040.

This summer, on behalf of the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Task Force, we published a report for the office of the Rail Minister, which outlines how we can meet these challenges.

For traction, we called for a clear policy to adopt greener technology such as electrification, hydrogen and battery cells, instead of diesel.  We also highlight the need for decarbonisation to be incentivised in any new industry structure that may emerge as part of the Williams Review.

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 and higher capacity routes.  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.

Investment decisions and milestones need to be drawn up imminently, together with the right R&D to enable the right mix of non-diesel options.  The industry is already making great strides, with trials planned by Northern and the new East Midlands franchise, and innovations such as the Hydroflex and Breeze hydrogen conversions.

Freight faces a bigger challenge. There are currently no viable alternatives to diesel, aside from full electrification. RSSB is doing further work to understand the potential for freight decarbonisation, but the Task Force is clear that this needs to be considered across all modes.

The Task Force makes five strategic recommendations:

  • Targets – rail should play a key role in delivering the UK’s target of net-zero carbon by 2050.
  • Policy – to facilitate this, the government should set out clear, consistent and enabling policies.
  • Industry structure – the Williams Review must ensure that any industry structure effectively enables, incentivises, monitors and regulates the route to net-zero carbon.
  • Delivery plan – each key constituent of the industry, e.g. Network Rail, TOC, FOC, ROSCO etc, should publish a long-term plan to achieve interim and long-term targets, with clear executive accountability – as happens for safety.
  • Research and development – the industry should set out clear five-year periodic research plans to reduce technical and implementation uncertainties.

The good news is that both the UK and rail are arguably ahead of the curve on the decarbonisation agenda compared to others.  To retain that momentum, we will need both industry and government to get to work now.

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