The Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway looks to the future and decarbonisation over the next 30 years…

The impact that COVID-19 has had on the UK is profound. The implications for public transport will be felt for several years to come. In the very short-term this has been through dramatically reduced passenger numbers. In the medium term, for probably the next two years, we expect to see reduced passenger numbers only slowly returning to normal, as operators grapple with how to operate a network with social distancing and how to protect staff. However, the longer-term prospects for public transport are more favourable.

Decarbonisation remains an important long-term issue for the UK. The goal of CO2 net zero UK will require public transport to be decarbonised, but will also require a modal shift to public transportation. The modal shift will be needed from both passengers and freight moving from road to rail. COVID-19 has also highlighted the critical role that rail freight plays and will increasingly need to hold.

Green recovery

COVID-19 has shown us a world with reduced pollution and a reduced number of cars on our streets. Investment in public transport will allow the UK to meet its decarbonisation targets, minimise pollution and NOx emission. The shift to public transport will also free our streets for those walking and cycling. Investment in public transportation will form an important part of the economic recovery post-COVID-19. Implementing a long-term plan for investment in public transport and rail will be critical to our collective recovery.

A vital constituent of a long-term plan of investment in the railway will be an investment in decarbonisation. Furthermore, an essential component of decarbonisation will be electrification. If the UK is to meet its Net Zero commitment, it will only be possible with investment in rail electrification.

On 8 May a group of companies and environmental groups wrote to the UK Government urging that the UK ‘must prioritise green economic recovery’. The group included a broad cross-section of UK business and environmental groups coming together for rare agreement, including: Iceland Foods, Barratt Developments, The Body Shop, Ben and Jerry’s, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the National Trust and Greenpeace UK.

In May 2020 a UBS bank report showed travellers are becoming more climate aware. Despite Covid-19, their report showed people still wanted to move to trains from planes. A post-COVID-19 economy will require more long-distance trains and for these trains to be powered by electrification.

The phrase ‘new normal’ is often overused, but what is the new normal we want to fight for as our economy recovers?

Real benefits

Rail electrification brings benefits beyond decarbonisation. A recent YouGov poll for the Institute of Civil Engineers found that only three per cent of the public think low-cost should be the main factor in judging the success of a major project. 74% per cent of the people surveyed thought benefits from projects should be considered first, in considering the project’s success. In addition to decarbonisation, electrification has major benefits that have real impacts on passengers travel. We used to collectively call these benefits the SPARKS EFFECT, that drove more passengers to use rail when electrification was rolled out in projects in the 1960s.

To date, there has been campaigning by local groups for individual projects. However, we do not believe that focusing on individual projects will deliver the most significant benefits. In March 2019 the Rail Industry Association published their Electrification Cost Challenge Report. The report demonstrated that a rolling programme of electrification is the only way to reduce costs. Furthermore, evidence from Scotland’s rolling programme of electrification shows this cost saving in action. Rolling programmes reduce costs because they allow engineering knowledge and managerial skill to grow and improve.

Such programmes also allow lessons learnt to be implemented. Historically the UK has had a boom and bust approach to electrification, with extensive programmes followed by a hiatus of work.

Individual projects also do not support the UK’s freight network. The network moves freight across the country, and trains will traverse several lines, thus taking a holistic approach is necessary. If we are to successfully decarbonise the UK railways, increase passenger and freight numbers, we need to take a long-term approach and implement a rolling programme.

That does not mean we advocate wasting more years in planning, more ’paralysis through analysis’ that is endemic in the UK government and public transport planning. The electrification of the current section of Midland Mainline is finishing, electrification of Great Western London to Cardiff is also finishing. Teams that have learnt lessons and lowered costs are now likely to be disbanded along with that collective knowledge. Lesson’s learnt are now being lost. Great Western project overspent as a whole, and was much maligned in the media for doing so, but the final packages of this project were delivered to budget. The budget improvements showed that lessons were learnt and implemented; there is now the risk these lessons learnt will soon be lost once again.

In Scotland, a long-term programme of electrification has delivered real benefits. It has reduced costs and increased knowledge. Recent proposals for future projects, as well as a National Low-Carbon Freight Network proposed by Transform Scotland and the Rail Freight Group are encouraging. However, what is the plan from the rest of the UK, outside of Scotland? Wales has steamed ahead with its plans, this still needs to evolve into a rolling programme, but the first concrete projects are commencing. For England, the journey has been more tortuous.

In 2017, the then Transport Minister, Chris Grayling cancelled parts of Great Western and Midland Mainline Electrification due to costs. However, this nadir was quickly followed by a change in policy and emphasis, which we hope will form a future rolling programme, as the timeline shows.

Electrification the future

Were are we now? The Rt Hon Grant Shapps, MP, Secretary of State for Transport has confirmed that the final decision for future electrification projects will be in Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Strategy, which will be published this Autumn. This date will also tie in with the publication of the DfT’s plans to decarbonise the whole transport sector.

Pressure has continued to build on the government to announce electrification. Since the Rail Industry Association’s report, further studies have shown that decarbonisation is not possible without electrification. RSSB’s studies have shown that for busy commuter lines or fast intercity lines, only electrification provides the service requirements as well as decarbonisation. In February an extensive collection of industry groups clubbed together to demand further electrification. These bodies included the Rail Freight Group, Northern Rail Industry Leaders, Campaign for Better Transport, Rail Industry Association, Rail Forum Midlands amongst others.

Subsequent to this letter, on 5 May, Transport Minister Baroness Vere, confirmed that ‘Electrification will play a significant role in our programme to decarbonise the railway’.

Currently, only approximately 42 per cent of the UK rail network is electrified. Recent studies have shown this will need to increase to between 70 to 80 per cent to decarbonise UK rail. The remainder of the network would need other forms of technology. Some of these technologies along with bi-mode trains may provide a technological bridge to full electrification.

The RSSB studies have shown a further 4,250 kilometres of railway needs electrification, and this equates to approximately 10,000 single track km as much of the railway needing electrification is two or four tracks. If we start the next projects this year, it is still over 330 kilometres of electrification a year needed. If we leave it five years before commencing, 400 kilometres a year will be required. Delaying making a decision increases the issue and subsequent costs. Cost increases on Great Western electrification show boom and bust delivery pushes up prices.

Short term wins

Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy is published this Autumn. However, it is believed a draft will be available from July. From a strategy, it will take time to evolve into real projects. The issue remains that project teams are being dissolved now, but future projects are a couple of years away.

In May, Rt Hon, Grant Shapps, MP wrote a response to a letter by Lilian Greenwood MP, confirming that that electrification of the remainder of Midland Mainline was actively being considered. Baroness Vere also confirmed in May that the ‘readiness of the schemes’ would be a critical factor in deciding which electrification projects get the go-ahead. We believe that some short-term projects can buy time for a rolling programme to be implemented. Some projects are ready to go and can fill this stop-gap such as the completion of the electrification of Midland Mainline. Completing the areas descoped from Great Western electrification can also help. Undertaking smaller projects such as Lakes Electrification in the Lake District to Windermere, could be a testbed for low-cost electrification. Other smaller projects could include infill schemes that would support electric freight, and these smaller projects would also be quick to implement.

Like Scotland, the whole UK could benefit from a rolling programme of electrification. These benefits will only be realised if we avoid a boom and bust approach, but that will require commitment from the UK Government. Our post-COVID-19 recovery could take many forms, but a green recovery can help passengers, freight and the economy. We hope to reinvigorate the railway through a modern-day ‘sparks effect’.

Noel Dolphin – twitter @noeldolphin

Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway – twitter @Rail_Elec