HomeEnvironmentRail decarbonisation - a letter to the Minister

Rail decarbonisation – a letter to the Minister

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There are hundreds of All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) formed by MPs and Members of the House of Lords who share a common interest in a policy area, region or country. These informal cross-party groups have no official status within Parliament, yet they fulfil a valuable role by keeping Parliamentarians informed. APPG meetings are about asking questions rather than argument.

On 9 July, the All-Party Parliamentary Rail Group (APPRG) considered rail decarbonisation. In a packed meeting room, its members questioned Professor Jim Skea, co-chair of the working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Helen McAllister, Network Rail’s head of strategic planning (freight and national passenger operators); the Railway Industry Association’s technical director David Clarke and RSSB’s head of sustainable development, Anthony Perret.

APPRG presentations

Jim Skea made the point that we have 12 months to start saving the world. He stressed that net zero by 2050 was “humongously” challenging and stressed the need for urgent action. He felt that that role of rail has been a blind spot in climate change reports as it has a big contribution to make by modal shift, noting that, globally, rail carries eight per cent of passengers, seven per cent of freight and consumes two per cent of transport energy. He referred to the net-zero Committee for Climate Change (CCC) report, which assumed that those sectors which can relatively easily decarbonise should support others.

Helen McAllister noted that the technology already exists to deliver a zero-carbon railway. However, there was a need to determine where electrification is most appropriate considering deliverability, affordability, operation and efficiency. She felt that appraisal techniques needed to factor in carbon reductions.

David Clarke acknowledged that some electrification programmes, especially Great Western, had not been well delivered. He felt that, after 20 years with no electrification, too much was done too quickly, with 11 electrification projects spreading resources too thinly. However, RIA’s electrification cost challenge report had identified what went wrong and shown that recent programmes had been well delivered. He was convinced that, if we want to decarbonise the rail network, a rolling programme of electrification was essential.

Anthony Perret, advised that the soon-to-be-published final report of the rail industry decarbonisation task force would show how the rail industry can decarbonise. He noted that rail was already a low-carbon mode, but a lot more needed to be done. He advised that the report would show that the existing electrified network needed to be used as much as possible and that there should be more electrification where it makes sense. The report also considered that there were no alternatives to diesel traction for freight but, for passenger services, batteries allowed for discontinuous electrification and hydrogen was a feasible alternative to diesel traction. He did not mention the limitations of hydrogen traction.

Rail decarbonisation report

The largely electric passenger fleet has reduced its emissions by taking advantage of the comparable reduction in power station GHG emissions over the last decade. In contrast over this period there was no reduction in emissions from the, largely diesel, freight locomotive fleet.

The final rail industry decarbonisation report was published 10 days after the APPRG meeting and was welcomed by industry stakeholders. It stressed that rail was already a carbon friendly form of transport, for example, per tonne kilometre, rail freight has only 25 per cent of the GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions of road freight. Amongst its recommendations was one for “additional, progressive electrification of more intensively used routes”, which was welcomed by the Department for Transport. This indicates a policy shift in favour of electrification as the interim report, published in January, stated that “we recognise that the lowest cost and lowest carbon impact whole system solution may identify some additional electrification.”

However, the report, which took 17 months to produce, recommended the development of strategic plans to deliver against the agreed targets, of which the first step is a Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy that will probably take a similar period to finalise (three years since the start of the decarbonisation report). This would not seem to be the urgent action that Professor Jim Skea emphasised was required, especially as the technology for rail decarbonisation already exists.

It took some time to review the 20,000-word rail decarbonisation report, which covered traction, property and infrastructure, of which traction is the greatest carbon source. This showed that the report does not address issues discussed at the APPRG meeting or in the CCC net zero report. Instead, it takes the stance: “Our focus throughout this report has been to challenge whether electrification is the best solution to achieve a net zero carbon railway in a manner consistent with delivering passenger benefits.”

The decarbonisation task force launches its report.

The report also fails to stress the limitations of alternative self-powered traction, for example that hydrogen trains require 2.5 times more electrical energy than electric trains. There was no mention of Alstom’s Breeze hydrogen train concept, which would modify a Class 321 EMU to give a 140km/h train with a range of 1,000 kilometres. As an indication of the constraints of hydrogen’s energy density, hydrogen tanks take up almost a third of the three-car Breeze, although it is possible that the tanks on a bespoke UK-gauge hydrogen train might not encroach into the passenger space.

It is noteworthy that, when giving presentations on Alstom’s hydrogen trains, the manufacturer’s representatives always stress their benefits for use where appropriate and acknowledge that they are not a universal solution.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the decarbonisation report is that its analysis table, which categorises rolling stock to show how trains can be powered, only considers distance and maximum speed. Hence, it does not address the fundamental requirement to consider the acceleration needed to give an acceptable journey time with the required number of stops. Therefore, it would be wrong to use this table to inform the Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy.

A high rate of acceleration is particularly important for urban and inter-city services and is essential if rail is to be sufficiently attractive to attract modal shift.

Rail Engineer understands that Grant Shapps, the new Secretary of State for Transport, has imposed a two-page limit on information he receives about Britain’s railways. In view of this, and the above issues, Rail Engineer would like to offer the following short letter to the Secretary of State outlining how the rail industry can best support the UK Government in delivering its obligations under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

This article first appeared in Issue 177 of Rail Engineer, Aug/Sep 2019.

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.


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