Jason Hurst, Director, Public Services Advisory, Grant Thornton UK LLP dives into the details of the government’s emissions targets  

In April 2021, the UK government announced that they would set in law one of the world’s most ambitious climate change targets, committing to cut emissions by 78 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2035.

As a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, change in travel is required if the government is to meet this target.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail has set out ten outcomes that present the vision for Great Britain’s railways, including ‘Britain’s railways can and will spearhead the nation’s ambition to become a world leader in clean, green transport. Decarbonisation, greater biodiversity and improvements in air quality in towns and cities will ensure rail is the backbone of a cleaner, greener public transport network.’

Rail travel has a crucial part to play in the decarbonisation agenda. While sustainability ties directly to people’s quality of life, rail also has a wider role to play in driving social value.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail focuses on allowing greater control for local people, empowering community rail partnerships and seeking better use of the assets held by the railway, in particular stations, by enhancing their role in the local community.

How rail can support net zero

Worldwide, the need to decarbonise society has gained momentum over recent years. The rail industry is not immune from this, nor should it be. In fact, rail has an increased role in seeking to capture passengers from other more polluting forms of travel such as flying.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail asserts that rail is one of the least polluting areas of UK transport infrastructure, accounting for c.1.4 per cent of transport emissions but carrying c. ten per cent of all passenger miles and nearly nine per cent of freight (based on pre-pandemic levels).

Whilst the level of emissions are relatively low, this does not exempt the railways from needing to cut emissions to achieve net zero. The Review identifies electrification as the likely way of decarbonising the majority of the network.

Transformative change of the rail network will require significant investment. The obvious fix of electrification alone carries with it significant cost (the Great Western Mainline electrification has to date cost over £2.5 billion) – the Achieving Net Zero report suggested that, as a minimum, 50 per cent of rail tracks must be electrified by 2040.

The UK government has announced almost £600 million to commence the electrification of the Leeds-Manchester Trans-Pennine route.

Other solutions will also be required, such as:

  • The use of battery-operated fleets where electrification is not achievable.
  • Other technologies such as hydrogen powered trains.
  • Or the introduction of bi and even tri mode trains.

Innovation will be crucial in order to meet the government’s targets, and this cannot be expected to be driven solely by government and Great British Railways (the independent body proposed by the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail to have responsibility for track and train operations). Great British Railways will be expected to bring forward costed options to decarbonise the whole network and private sector rail operators must be empowered to bring ideas forward for further development. This will require industry-wide collaboration and appropriate incentivisation – government, Great British Railways, operators, and train leasing companies must all pull in the same direction if such ambitious objectives are to be achieved.

A holistic view of transport infrastructure will also be required.

Whilst the Department for Transport will need to undertake this role, Great British Railways will need to drive the decarbonisation agenda forward for rail, whilst collaborating with those responsible for other modes of transport so that a coordinated approach to transport can be achieved.

Decarbonisation is just one key element in driving social value

Social value is a key priority for government and serves as an umbrella term for the broad effects of the wider economic, social and environmental impact of the actions of organisations.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail commits to exploring ‘opportunities to better unlock housing, local economic growth and social value’, noting that ‘There are real opportunities for the railways to do more to support local economic growth, such as encouraging small independent retailers on the rail estate. This could extend more widely, with greater emphasis on place and social value’.

The decarbonisation agenda is just one aspect in driving social value. Organisations are increasingly expected to evaluate and demonstrate the positive effects of their actions and how they have contributed to the long-term wellbeing and resilience of individuals, communities, and society in general. This is now an integral part of the requirements of many government contract procurements.

The railway plays an essential part in the local economy and can be a key facilitator of providing social value, through, for example:

  • Enabling those with reduced mobility to travel
  • Making best use of the assets that are part of the railway, such as stations to create meeting places or community hubs
  • Enabling better connected journeys, end-to-end, to connect remote communities or provide essential commuter or leisure journeys

As the UK moves to recovery from Covid-19, passengers will return to the railways. A key challenge for the Department for Transport and Great British Railways (once established), will be balancing the drive for increasing social value, given the value that rail and transport adds to the social fabric of communities, with the commercial realities of the need to drive revenues and reduce costs.

As identified in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, while network level decisions will be required to be taken by Great British Railways, local people should be able to influence local decisions: albeit, the delivery of this in practice will be challenging.

Accessibility to the rail network to all

  • For some time, a significant section of society has perceived the railways as principally a provider of commuter travel and inaccessible to those with reduced mobility.
  • This perception needs to be changed, both as part of a push to encourage the return of passengers to the railway, but also to ensure the rail network is accessible to all.
  • This will, however, require investment and take time, but, this need cannot be ignored.

Use of railway stations

  • Railway stations are often seen as hubs in a local area, but this varies significantly by geography. Much more could potentially be made of stations and the use of the space surrounding them to better reflect people’s needs.
  • This may become particularly relevant as individual’s method of getting to and from stations changes – for example, the use of or need of car parking will likely change, potentially as a result of automated vehicles, or the use of personalised electric scooters or bikes, freeing up space for other uses

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail establishes the direction of rail to meet the needs of passengers over the coming years, if not decades. The role Great British Railways will need to play in driving decarbonisation will be a key component in the government achieving its targets. Likewise, enabling local decision making to embed rail in communities to enhance social value will need careful balancing.


Jason Hurst is Director, Public Services Advisory at Grant Thornton UK LLP