HomeElectrificationA credible, pragmatic plan

A credible, pragmatic plan

Listen to this article

The title of the Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) report ‘Delivering a lower cost, higher performing net zero railway by 2050’ is a bit of a mouthful. Yet it illustrates how, with the right strategic guidance, the railway can simultaneously deliver a cost-effective railway that offers its customers better performing trains whilst also eliminating traction carbon. This is also affordable as it is largely based on existing plans to which the Government is committed.

In addition, the report’s recommendations also support the UK economy by eliminating ‘boom and bust’ procurement to give the railway supply chain a predictable workload. The threatened closure of Alstom’s Derby rolling stock manufacturing plant highlights the importance of addressing this issue.

The need for such a report was highlighted in the UK Government’s Williams Shapps report which was published in May 2021 and committed to the publication of a 30-year whole industry strategic plan in 2022. Yet three years later, no such plan has been produced and is unlikely to be produced until well after the next general election.

Credit: RIA.

RIA is to be commended for its production of a suggested strategy which could potentially fill the current policy vacuum. Though its report might not be government policy, it provides the basis for a unified industry approach which could usefully inform the next government’s thinking.

The plan of thirds

RIA’s strategy has three components: (i) deploying battery electric multiple units (BEMUs) as soon as possible where little if any new infrastructure is needed; (ii) electrifying intensively used passenger and freight routes; and (iii) implementing discontinuous electrification or fast chargers where BEMUs need their range extending to decarbonise the least intensively-used routes. It is proposed that these elements would be delivered concurrently to achieve early carbon reduction whilst smoothing delivery activity. This strategy would decarbonise 100% of passenger services and 98% of freight services by 2050.

The report shows that this is an opportunity to quickly achieve passenger, carbon, and air quality benefits. Without further electrification, the report considers that BEMUs could replace diesel traction on 133 of the 216 current diesel-powered routes. RIA considers that replacing DMUs with BEMUs is a ‘no-regrets’ decision given the age of most DMUs and the RIA assessment that there will still be 135 routes where BEMUs are needed in 2035. These will not all be the same routes as the BEMUs would be initially deployed on, as they would be cascaded as the electrification programme progresses.

Electrification of intensively used routes would require increasing the amount of electrification from its current 38% of the network to 66%. Electrification schemes for which there are currently commitments, including those in Network North, would increase the amount of electrification to 51%. The 1,260 single track kilometres (stk) of electrification recommended by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) to decarbonise 95% of rail freight would further increase network electrification to 59%. The RIA report considered that a further 7% of the network needs to be electrified to decarbonise all passenger services and greater than 95% of freight services.

It calls for all this electrification to be delivered at a consistent level of activity allowing suppliers to invest in people, plant, and processes, and benefit from continuous improvement. RIA believes that this smooth programme will further reduce the cost of electrification.

Delivery of currently committed schemes that would see 51% of the network electrified requires around 345 stk to be completed per annum into the early 2030s. This means that no new government funding is needed until that time. RIA considers that this rate of delivery should be sustained into the 2040s to electrify 66% of the network in order to decarbonise all passenger services and 95% of rail freight. Its report stresses that this would require early strategic engagement with the electricity supply industry. However, the availability of new technology such as static frequency converters reduces our dependence on major grid connections.

RIA’s analysis shows that after the electrification of committed schemes and that required for freight (i.e., 59% of the network), 46 of the 216 routes currently operated by diesel trains would not have been decarbonised. For most of these routes, RIA proposes electrification around major stations, to charge BEMUs on high frequency routes, and to fill gaps on 80-100mph routes. This is the further 7% of the network that RIA considers should be electrified in addition to committed schemes and freight electrification.

This would leave eight long-distance low-frequency routes in Scotland, Wales, and NW England. Although hydrogen trains with a range of 800 to 1,000km may be suitable for these routes, unlike BEMUs these are not considered to be a mature technology. Furthermore, an established ‘green’ hydrogen industry would be needed to supply these trains. Whilst it is possible that hydrogen trains might be a viable future option, RIA’s report proposes that BEMUs will operate on these routes as these are currently the available technology. These would require fast charging stations such as those described in Malcolm Dobell’s feature on battery electric and battery hybrid trains in this issue. These would necessitate occasional slightly longer stops on these routes.

Credit: RIA / Google.

RIA’s methodology

The development of a strategy for future rolling stock, and the infrastructure they require, demands an understanding of the potential range of rail passenger and freight demand growth. In the absence of any official forecasts of rail passenger growth in the public domain, RIA commissioned Steer Group to undertake an independent assessment of the range of potential passenger growth.

This study took official forecasts of economic activity and population growth and reflected on how this might affect passenger growth by considering different assumptions about sluggish economic growth, the effectiveness of measures to attract passengers, and behavioural change including changes in home working and how rail’s environmental credentials might increase passenger numbers. It concluded that full recovery to pre-pandemic rail passenger levels would take between four and seven years and that, by 2050, rail passenger levels will have increased by between 37% and 97% of their pre-pandemic peak. This is an average growth per annum of between 1.6% and 3.0%. This compares with the 3.7% average annual growth rate between privatisation and the pandemic.
The RIA report is based on this estimated growth in rail passenger traffic. For rail freight it assumes a 75% increase by 2050 as this is the recently published rail freight growth target.

To develop various electrification scenarios including the best use of existing electrification and the minimum amount of electrification required to decarbonise rail passenger services, RIA developed a network model for the 1,100 discrete route segments used by the 216 routes on the network operated by diesel trains. The information held for each segment included its length, service frequency, number of stations, whether electrified, and its potential for electrification.

In some scenarios this showed that the requirement for battery charging may require power supply upgrades. Following widespread consultation with its members, RIA assumed that BEMUs can operate for a minimum of 60km ‘off wires’ and probably 80km, though gradient may then be a factor. It was also considered that BEMUs would need a similar length of wire or a charging station to recharge.
The number of diesel train routes for each electrification scenario is shown on the graph.

Rail freight

As the installed power of a freight locomotive is many times that of a single diesel rail passenger vehicle, it is not practical for them to carry on-board storage. As electric freight locomotives are both significantly more powerful and have lower life cycle costs than diesel locomotives, RIA’s report proposes electrification as the major solution for rail freight decarbonisation.

Hence RIA has adopted the recommendations of the CILT’s electrification strategy report which proposes 1,260 stk of electrification to make the core freight network fully electrified. This would enable 95% of rail freight trains to be electrically hauled and encourage modal shift of long-distance trunk haulage from road to rail. The CILT report also notes that, in the short term, the electrification of six short infill sections totalling less than 100km would enable many more freight trains to be electrically hauled over long distances.

The CILT’s proposed electrification programme aligns with life expiry of the existing diesel locomotive fleet, which will need replacement through the 2030s and 2040s. The CILT also considers that the private sector freight operating companies are keen to procure new locomotives but only if there is an electrified core freight network on which to operate them.

The RIA report notes that ‘drop-in’ alternative fuels or dual-fuelling provide decarbonisation options for diesel locomotives used for both freight and passenger services. It considered the situation both interim, when locomotives could not be replaced in the short term, and for the 5% of freight traffic for which electrification is not viable. The report contains an appendix produced by University of Nottingham which describes the range of alternative fuels and concludes that there are plausible short term and long-term options for ‘drop in fuels’ to displace diesel.

Yet these fuels are in short supply and more expensive than the diesel they would replace. RIA understands that Government policy is that the rail industry should not use alternative fuels with available supplies being prioritised towards aviation and recommends that this policy should be reconsidered. It is also considered that a policy decision is needed regarding the cost of ‘drop-in’ fuels as freight operators have tight financial margins and cannot make the business case to use such alternative fuels on a routine basis. Hence RIA recommends that consideration should be given to subsidising the use of alternative fuels for rail freight.

It is also important to note that whilst alternative fuels reduce carbon emissions, they do not eliminate other harmful emissions. Therefore, whilst they provide an interim solution, they are not a viable long-term solution where freight can be electrified.

Credit: RIA.

Rolling stock strategy

A key aspect of RIA’s report is its consideration of train procurement for which it makes recommendations to avoid the historic ‘boom and bust’ production. This section builds on a previous RIA report – ‘The UK Rolling Stock Industry: Making 2023 the year of opportunity not crisis’. This used a database of existing passenger rolling stock introduction dates to forecast when replacement or life extension decisions would be needed assuming an average life of 35 years. Not surprisingly this reflected the historic ‘boom and bust’ procurement profile.

RIA’s analysis suggests how these large fluctuations in demand could be avoided in future. It calls for orders to replace 2,600 vehicles which will be 35 years old or older by 2030 which includes 1,100 DMU vehicles that could be replaced by BEMUs. Orders to increase fleet size to accommodate the growth in passenger travel could be placed in the years of otherwise low demand for new trains. Another way of smoothing demand would be to extend the life of some trains which is considered feasible for aluminium-bodied vehicles.

The difference between an order profile based on current fleet life and that with intelligent intervention as proposed by RIA is shown below.


While the much of the RIA report focuses on the need for rail decarbonisation, it expects that the electrification required for this will have a positive business case in the long term. RIA’s 2023 paper ‘Electrification: The Facts’ demonstrates why “electric railways are better railways, however you define better.”

RIA’s report notes its proposals are likely to have a good business case as Network Rail’s 2020 Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy had a positive business case for a far greater programme of electrification programme. To further review the case for electrification, RIA had the support of A D Little to develop a Total Expenditure/whole life (TOTEX) model for a specific route.

The route chosen was Bristol to Penzance which was felt to have a marginal case for electrification with most of its services being hourly or two-hourly. The TOTEX model compared the BEMU deployment (with charging infrastructure) or EMU (with full electrification) against a do-nothing option.

This showed that after 14 years the BEMU solution offers the lowest total cost, whilst, compared with do-nothing, full electrification pays for itself after 28 years.

The report demonstrates how its strategy will deliver 70% of rail traction carbon within 10 years. It also considers the wider benefits of rail decarbonisation are also considered. These include modal shift from other transport modes and the economic benefits of expenditure on the supply chain. A report undertaken by Oxford Economics for RIA shows for every pound spent on the railway a further £2.50 is generated in the wider economy.

The reports proposals to smooth the delivery of both electrification and rolling stock also offer significant benefits as historic irregular delivery drives up cost due to the frequency of mobilisation and demobilisation of resources.

Nevertheless, it is recognised that the affordability of any public investment is a major challenge given current fiscal constraints. As there is a positive whole life/whole system business case which will permanently lower railway operating costs, the report recommends exploring private finance options. These could include bundled ‘track and train’ solutions which could be a BEMU fleet and its associated charging infrastructure. RIA considers that such initiatives should be encouraged to move away from public funding as the default solution.

Credit: RIA

Way forward

RIA’s strategy shows how its proposed planned strategic approach offers significant benefits. This includes providing confidence to railway planners and investors as well as to the wider economy including the electricity industry by clarifying which routes will be electrified by 2050 and which will not. Furthermore, costs will inevitably be driven up if train owners and operators cannot make optimal decisions about rolling stock specification and procurement in the absence of a plan.

RIA has certainly met its objective of producing a plausible, affordable, and deliverable strategy to deliver a lower cost, higher performing, net zero railway by 2050. Rail decarbonisation has been a key industry issue since the then Rail Minister Jo Johnson challenged the industry to eliminate diesel trains in February 2018. In the six years since then, no other published report has provided such a credible affordable strategy. Yet it has no official status.

Others, including Network Rail and the Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT), have also been undertaking similar work. RSSB’s recently published ‘Sustainable Rail Blueprint’ has also considered this issue and notes how GBRTT will set out a detailed strategy that includes targeted electrification and maximising the value of alternative rolling stock solutions, as RIA has done, though GBRTT has yet to publish a long-term strategy.

This work, and that done by RIA, needs to be brought together to produce the whole system ‘rail-plan’. For this reason, RIA recommends that GBRTT is empowered to work with industry to prepare such a rail-plan for Great British Railways to deliver when it is formed.

In this way it is to be hoped that RIA’s work will provide a catalyst to accelerate the production of a much needed official plan to deliver a lower cost, higher performing, net zero railway by 2050.

Lead image credit: Siemens Mobility

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.