Rail travel is one of the most sustainable transport methods in the UK
Analysis by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy shows that per kilometre travelled, domestic rail emits 41g of CO2 emissions per passenger. This is compared to 171g for
a passenger in an average diesel car, or 133g for a domestic flight. The environmental benefits of rail travel are one of its main strengths. For some passengers, however, this may be hard to
believe, especially when confronted by a diesel train idling on the platform, its engine giving off a loud rumble, the smell of exhaust fumes in the air.
Rail electrification is not only an opportunity to shift this perception, but also further the rail industry, and wider UK’s journey to net-zero.
Power of electric rail
Studies have shown that electric trains can be up to three times more energy-efficient than their diesel counterparts.
Network Rail has confirmed that electric train journeys generate 20-30% less carbon per mile than a diesel train. While providing passengers with an even more sustainable method of rail travel, the benefits of electrification are significant if seen in the context of an entire fleet, which if replaced with electric trains, could potentially deliver operators in excess of 75 per cent in emissions savings.
These environmental benefits are not exclusive to rolling stock for passenger use, but also businesses operating freight services. This is an important point to make, as many freight trains – some
estimates show up to 90 per cent of total stock – are still powered by diesel. The benefits of electric rail are not just environmental, though.
Diesel trains also require more energy to move the weight of their power plant and fuel, and can lose energy through the combustion progress – leading to slower speeds.
The increased speeds possible using electric naturally leads to improved journey times, which in turn help move more traffic to rail and away from roads. Even in financial terms, there are clear economic advantages in electric rail, with studies suggesting that there could be savings of between of between £2-£3 million per passenger vehicle over that vehicle’s lifetime.
So, considering its financial, environmental and operational benefits, why is only 38 per cent of the UK rail network powered by electricity?
Barriers to progress
One of the main challenges to electric rail has traditionally been its costs. An analysis of historic electrification projects shows that the process can cost from £750,000 to £1 million per single track kilometre. Indeed, some UK projects have been completed at even higher rates of £1.5-£2 million per single track kilometre.
The rail sector has discussed at length how electrification can be made cheaper to support its wider roll out. Indeed, some have called for the rail supply chain to prioritise developing an ‘off-the-shelf’ type solution.
However, what these calls fail to take into consideration is the complexity of the UK rail network, some of which dates back to the Victorian era.
There is no universal solution to rail electrification. We have to realise that every stretch of track has its own challenges and differences, and adapt accordingly.
Any efforts to accelerate the roll out of electric rail across the UK must involve the government providing clarity over its plans. The publication of the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) was the first step on this journey. The IRP confirmed the electrification of the Midland Main Line and the electrification and upgrade of the Transpennine Main Line. Though welcome news – electrifying over
180 miles of route – the rail industry needs further information on how and when this will be delivered.
The publication of the rail network enhancements pipeline (RNEP) is critical to this. Now awaiting an update for over 950 days, the pipeline must be published now – providing crucial information on the timings of the government’s rolling programme of investment, including for the new projects laid out in the IRP.
Rail operators, rolling stock companies and the supply chain are reliant on this information in order to properly plan and innovate for the future, which will include much needed investment in electrification.
By publishing an updated RNEP, the onus can begin to be put back onto the rail supply chain and wider industry to support rail electrification. The rail supply chain, in particular, could use the certainty to invest in new technology and skills. The impact of this is far reaching – creating jobs and boosting the economy, while also driving forward rail electrification in a more cost-effective and faster way. Of course, the supply chain cannot do this alone.
The government, including the forthcoming Great British Railways (GBR), has an ongoing role to play in terms of encouraging and supporting the supply chain to be more innovative.
For example, organisations like Innovate UK could be utilised to further incentivise and provide funding for the development of electric rail technology. This is already happening to an extent, with the Department for Transport launching a £7.6 million ‘First of a Kind’ competition with the aim of promoting ‘cutting-edge technology that will help transform rail travel’. It is critical that this continues and is also scaled-up with a focus on electric rail.
Equally, GBR could reinvest some of the funds raised from fares back into the supply chain with the aim of supporting rail electrification – confident in the knowledge that parts of the rail network are already electrified and delivering environmental and operational benefits.
The projects outlined in the IRP could see 75 per cent of Britain’s main rail lines be electrified. It’s critical that we do not stop there, however, and instead push for a fully electric railway network that delivers a high-quality experience for passengers, boosts the economy and most importantly, supports the journey to net-zero.
Michelle Craven-Faulkner is a partner and rail lead at Shoosmiths