British Rail Industry: Rail Decarbonisation Not Possible without Electrification

The British railway industry has written an open letter to the government explaining that the rail industry cannot decarbonise without an immediate rolling programme of electrification. The UK government has a legal commitment to meet its net-zero emissions target.

The open letter was signed by more than 15 industry, business and campaign groups. It was sent in association with a new report, Why Rail Electrification, which illustrates why electrification is a vital and major component of rail decarbonisation, despite the development of technologies such as battery and hydrogen traction.

The government has stated that all diesel-only trains are to come off the rail network by 2040. In its Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy, Network Rail says that there are 13,000 STKs (single track kilometres) that are not electrified and in order to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, 450km will have to be electrified every year. However, in 2019–2020 only 251km were electrified.

David Shirres, Report Lead Author, said:

“The ‘Why Rail Electrification?’ report complements Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy by explaining why electrification is both a future-proof technology and a good investment.

“If Britain is to decarbonise, transport has to be weaned off petroleum for which the only zero-carbon alternative is electricity. [...] electric trains collect electricity on the move from fixed current collection systems and feed it straight into their motors without any energy conversion losses. Hence, they offer efficient high-powered net-zero carbon traction with large passenger, freight, and operational benefits.

“It is hoped that this report, which is supported by rail businesses and professional engineering institutions, will be read by decision makers to enable them to understand exactly why rail electrification offers such advantages.”

In 2017 a number of electrification projects were cancelled in the country as a result of cost overruns on a few projects, particularly the Great Western Electrification Programme, which caused the government to lose confidence in the industry to deliver in this area. However, RIA believes that one of the central causes of the electrification problems between 2014–2019 was the 20-year hiatus on electrification in the UK prior to 2014.

It is also important to be aware that alternative traction options such as battery and hydrogen power cannot replace electrification. They are not fit for freight and high-speed services because these services are very energy-intensive. This point was noted in the Transport Committee’s March 2021 report Trains Fit for the Future, which stated that “electrification is the only immediately viable decarbonisation option for most of the network”.

Why Rail Electrification Report: 10 Key Points

  • Current battery and hydrogen trains require, respectively, 21 and 12 times the storage volume of a diesel tank
  • Electric passenger trains have reduced their emissions by 30 percent since 2005
  • Rail’s greatest contribution to UK decarbonisation is likely to be from modal shift to rail: a modal shift of 4 percent of passengers and 4 percent of freight transport to rail would save more carbon than the rail sector’s current total emissions
  • Electric traction offers significant benefits to passengers, freight customers and the taxpayer over diesel traction – Its performance should be the benchmark of a future railway: electric trains are generally 3x more energy-efficient than diesel trains
  • UK rail has one of the world’s worst railway carbon emissions records
  • Hydrogen trains have an energy efficiency of about 34 percent
  • There is not sufficient space to fit traction batteries or store hydrogen within a freight locomotive – storing hydrogen for a freight locomotive would take up more space than the locomotive itself
  • A battery pack storing the same energy as a typical diesel rail passenger vehicle would weigh an extra 40 tons and therefore double the weight of the vehicle
  • Electrification saves lifetime costs of around 2–3 million GBP per passenger vehicle
  • Because of the UK’s limited loading gauge, roof-mounted hydrogen tanks (as per the Alstom Coradia iLint in use in Germany) are not an option for the UK – the tanks would have to be located within the train
Darren Caplan, Chief Executive, Railway Industry Association (RIA), said:

“It’s great to launch the ‘Why Rail Electrification?’ report today, as part of RIA’s RailDecarb21 campaign – calling on the Government to support efforts to decarbonise the rail network ahead of the COP26 Conference in Glasgow later this year.

“The report clearly shows the rail industry will be unable to decarbonise the network without a rolling programme of electrification. As RIA has demonstrated in recent work, electrification in the UK can be delivered affordably, at up to 50% the cost of some past projects, if there is a long-term, consistent, profile of work rather than the current situation of boom and bust.

“Crucially, a rolling programme of electrification needs to start now if the Government is to hit its Net Zero obligations, and if the railway industry is not to lose capability and expertise from the current hiatus in activity. Also, by committing to electrification immediately, UK rail could be a world leader, creating and sustaining green jobs, investment and economic growth at a critical time for the UK economy as we all seek to build out of the Coronavirus pandemic.”

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