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Why is Britain’s rail network still dependent on high-polluting diesel trains?

The UK government is dragging its feet on modernising and decarbonising the country's puffed-out trains.

By Philippa Nuttall

“We Diesels don’t need to learn. We know everything. We come to a yard and improve it. We are revolutionary.” 

Thus boasted Diesel, a smooth-talking diesel engine who rocks up on the Island of Sodor to show Thomas the Tank Engine and his steam-powered friends what the future looks like in The Railway Series of children’s books. More than 60 years later, this high-polluting diesel is still the future for over 60 per cent of the UK rail network. 

This week, Boris Johnson, with the aid of some vroom-vrooming noises, extolled the virtues of electric vehicles. Indeed, the UK has pledged to sell no new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030; five years later, all new cars and vans must be fully zero-emission at the tailpipe. The government is also keener than ever to bill itself as climate action leaders, after the relative success of Cop26. Writing in the Guardian this week, Cop26 president, Alok Sharma, said that all countries owed it to the youth activists to “deliver what we agreed”.

Yet, simply swapping every fossil fuel car on the road for an electric vehicle will not deliver on the UK’s emissions reduction pledge. Surface transport is the largest emitting sector in the UK, making up as much as 27 per cent of the country’s territorial emissions in 2019. Emissions from surface transport must fall by 90 per cent by 2050 to meet the government’s net zero target, yet they have stayed broadly flat over the past decade, falling just 1 per cent between 2009 and 2019. To make matters worse, road traffic, based on pre-pandemic trends, is predicted to grow by 22 per cent from 2015 to 2035.

In July, the UK government set out what it deemed as the “world’s first ‘greenprint’ to decarbonise all modes of domestic transport by 2050”. This included the promise to provide a “net-zero railway network by 2050”, with the ambition to remove all diesel-only trains — passenger and freight — from the network by 2040. “As we build back better from the pandemic, it will be essential to avoid a car-led recovery,” said Grant Shapps, UK transport secretary, in the plan’s foreword. “We must make public transport, cycling and walking the natural first choice for all who can take it.”

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But progress toward this goal is chugging along at a similar pace to Thomas the Tank Engine’s friend Gordon, the train that is always boasting, when he tries one day to climb the hill with the coal trucks. In other words, not very fast — even going backwards. Indeed, Gordon eventually has to be rescued by the much maligned Edward the Blue Engine. 

The first problem is the HS2. The plan was to create high-speed rail links between London and major cities in the Midlands and the north of England. In July, Shapps wrote this would along with “other major projects…deliver benefits for passengers, including carbon savings more quickly and effectively” than under previous proposals, “which would have left the North and Midlands – and the environment – waiting twenty years for any major improvement”. But the government announced last week that the leg between the East Midlands and Leeds is being scrapped.

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The second issue is that to decarbonise its rail network, the UK will have to ditch the diesel and electrify. However, only 38 per cent of the UK network is currently electrified in terms of kilometres, with the rest still using diesel. This figure is much lower compared to other European countries. Switzerland tops the charts with 99 per cent of its rail network electrified, with 76 per cent in the Netherlands, 61 per cent in Germany and 56 per cent in France. 

Last year, the UK only electrified 179km of railway, less than half the rate needed to decarbonise the network by 2050.

“We need to deliver 13,000 kilometres of electrification by 2050, meaning we need to be electrifying around 400 kilometres a year,” said David Clarke, the technical director at the Railway Industry Association (RIA), recently. “And with no major schemes coming down the line, we can reasonably expect there will be less work, not more, in the coming year.” And he had more bad news. “Crucially, the industry is also losing expertise and capabilities whilst schemes are stalled, meaning it will be harder to deliver the considerable amount of work needed if and when new projects are started.”

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak save the planet with green finance?]

It isn’t cheap to electrify a stretch of rail. It costs around £2m to electrify 1km of railway line in the UK, according to the RIA. However, the RIA argues that the UK lags behind other countries not because of the costs involved, but because of the “lack of a rolling programme of electrification”. Instead, the UK has seen a “‘boom and bust’ approach to investment, with long periods of zero electrification projects followed by years of high demand.

Research suggests electric trains produce 24 per cent of the emissions of a diesel train and that electric trains are around three times more energy-efficient than their more polluting counterparts, and more powerful. A better, cleaner rail service it also important to shift lorries off the roads. Even a 4 per cent transfer of road freight to rail could save as much as 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

Electric trains are also better for passengers and their health, says the RIA. “They are faster, more reliable, offer greater capacity and smoother journeys for passengers,” says Clarke. “Electrified lines also have air quality and noise benefits in and around stations.” And while upfront costs are signifiant, “electrification saves lifetime costs of around £2m to £3m a passenger vehicle,” says the RIA, since electric trains are cheaper to operate and maintain, and they reduce wear on the tracks as they are lighter.

Given the situation, it would seem time to bring out the equivalent of the Fat Controller, who ruled over Thomas and friends with an iron rod, to work out a genuine plan to get the UK’s trains on track for a net-zero future. 

[See also: The road to net zero]