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Follow the Science

Use of mainline rail passenger services and cars is now respectively 18 and 85 per cent that of last year. With the Covid crisis accelerating trends of flexible and home working and encouraging travellers into the isolation of their cars, it will be a long time before rail ridership returns to previous levels.

This presents a huge financial challenge which could make it difficult to justify rail capacity investment. To do so, the railway needs to play to its strengths in reducing transport carbon. This needs urgent action if the 2050 target of net-zero carbon is to be achieved.

Although rail is well known to be an environmentally friendly form of transport, decision makers do not seem to understand the science that makes rail the easiest sector to decarbonise and the only one that can offer net-zero carbon high-speed passenger and heavy freight haulage.

As an example, when launching the Jet Zero Council, Boris Johnson hoped it would pave the way for zero-emission long-haul passenger flights. Last year, Grant Shapps wished for an electric revolution in the skies. However, exuding enthusiasm to get things done does not change the laws of physics. A long-haul plane takes off with, typically, 100 tonnes of jet fuel on board. If an electric plane was to store this amount of energy, its battery would weigh a few thousand tonnes and be about ten times the size of a jet plane’s fuel tank. This explains why the chairman of the government’s environmental advisory body, the Committee for Climate Change (CCC), has advised Shapps that “zero-carbon aviation is highly unlikely to be feasible by 2050”.

Unfortunately, this is not the only CCC advice that has gone unheeded. Its impressive net-zero report provided a comprehensive zero-carbon blueprint for each sector. Yet there is little, if any, action on its key recommendations which include removing gas boilers from the nation’s homes, large scale carbon capture and storage, a massive increase in hydrogen production, doubling electricity generation and grid capacity with a threefold increase in renewable power.

Net-zero will only be achieved if the nation’s transport can be weaned off the 55 million tonnes of petroleum it uses each year. Electricity, which can be zero-carbon, depending on how it is generated, is the only other way of transporting such huge amounts of energy. However, when used for road transport, electricity needs to be stored. Yet, as shown above, batteries store much less energy than fuel tanks.

This need not be a constraint for rail transport, which has a unique ability to use electricity as it is generated. With the ability to suck up megawatts of power on the move, electric trains offer high-powered, high-efficiency, zero-carbon transport, with many other benefits. The industry needs to ensure that government understands the science that gives railways this exceptional advantage.

Electrification’s advantages are further explained in two of this month’s features. One by Garry Keenor and Paul Hooper of Atkins also highlights the high cost and lost skills from the historic boom and bust approach to electrification. Peter Stanton’s article explains the ‘route rationalisation, resignal and electrify’ philosophy and stresses the need for effective production management to ensure cost effective delivery, which is essential if government are to invest in electrification.

An interesting decarbonisation initiative is the Class 93 locomotive being developed by the Rail Operations Group (ROG) and Stadler to provide more electrically powered freight trains. Our feature explains that this is just one of the ROG’s various freight initiatives. Another worthwhile project is finding solutions to the problem of low rail adhesion, as described by Malcolm Dobell who explains why adding water to slippery rails might be a good idea.

The carbon savings that would stem from a five per cent passenger modal shift from road to rail would save more carbon than rail’s current emissions. However, this would require a 50 per cent increase in rail capacity. This is one of the reasons why HS2 is needed. The amount of traffic that it will carry is illustrated by Bob Wright’s feature on the massive new interchange station at Old Oak Common. We also explain why HS2’s project’s first railway systems contract is for pre-cast slab track. Rhomberg Sersa has been laying such track for years, as we explain in a back-to-basics feature about both ballasted and ballastless track. The new line to Ashington will be a much smaller new passenger railway. As Mark Phillips describes, this reverses a Beeching cut to provide much-needed connectivity benefits.

The Docklands Light Railway is not quite so new. Between 1987 and 2011, it has steadily expanded to provide the connectivity to develop the area it serves. We describe why its original digital signalling needs to be replaced.

On the mainline railway, installing digital signalling has taken longer than expected. This topic was recently considered at a week-long digital signalling webinar staged by the Railway Industry Association. Clive Kessell’s report of this event explains the complexity of the ERTMS programme and considers what is different now.

Finally, Nigel Wordsworth reports that a combined Railtex and Infrarail is to return on 11 – 13 May. We look forward to seeing you there.

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

SPECIALIST AREAS
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.

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