White paper step forward on electrification?

Strongest hint yet of a rolling programme. But must we really wait for “feet under table” at Great British Railways?

The government’s Great British Railways white paper says “Transport generates over a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, … the largest emitting sector of the economy. But rail produces around 1% of Great Britain’s transport emissions, despite carrying almost 10% of all passenger miles and nearly 9% of freight moved before the pandemic.” (p88 of the Report)

We say absolutely right. Rail already has the capability to move passenger and goods with net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. “ There are huge opportunities for rail to contribute … through further electrification.” That, at last, is getting close to what we should be hearing. The document continues:

Electrification is likely to be the main way of decarbonising the majority of the network. Electrification does not merely decarbonise existing rail journeys: it has a clear record of attracting new passengers and freight customers to rail, the so called ‘sparks effect’, thereby decarbonising journeys that would otherwise have been by road. The government has announced almost £600 million to start work on electrifying the Trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester, design work to extend electrification to Market Harborough is underway, and the government will announce further electrification projects in England … shortly.

Great British Railways, the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

That may not be quite a commitment to a rolling programme, but is the nearest we’ve had yet. It’s not absolutely clear if this is a commitment to full electrification of the route through Huddersfield and Stalybridge but it feels like a strong hint. Market Harborough is on the Midland Main Line where, the next step must surely be through to Nottingham Sheffield and on to Leeds. We want to see these commitments firmed up, beyond vague ministerial (indeed prime ministerial) promises to a national programme that includes the March 2015 Northern Sparks task force recommendations headed by our full Calder Valley Line.

Note: “the main way” of decarbonising the majority of the network. We make no apology here for repeating figures showing what the split between electrification, battery power and hydrogen should be – based on Network Rail’s traction decarbonisation network strategy published last autumn. We think the DfT and ministers get this.

The worry is the word “shortly”. Here’s the next bit. You can spot our slight concern here:

Great British Railways will bring forward costed options to decarbonise the whole network to meet the government’s commitment to a net-zero society as part of the 30-year strategy. These plans will help to kickstart innovation and change across the sector, support long-term funding commitments and build on the forthcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan and Great British Railways will bring forward costed options to decarbonise the whole network to meet the government’s commitment to a net-zero society as part of the 30-year strategy. These plans will help to kickstart innovation and change across the sector, support long-term funding commitments and build on the forthcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan and Network Rail’s recent Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy.

Great British Railways, the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

So the new “guiding mind” of our national rail network will offer options with price tags to the government. Meanwhile the DfT’s transport decarbonisation plan is coming soon. And at least the ground-breaking TDNS is acknowledged. But does this mean we have to wait until the still-to-be-appointed chief executive of GBR has established their feet under the table? Surely, Network Rail has schemes that it can be getting on with, and needs to be drawing up a rolling programme now? Yes, we have said it before, but let’s start getting electrification done.

Over and over again rail industry bodies call for ongoing electrification where teams stay together, developing and improving techniques as they move from scheme to scheme. This is network electrification, it reduces the overall costs, and multiplies the benefits as it cuts the number of non-electric trains operating “under the wires”. In Scotland all four routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow are electrified and there’s a plan to electrify all but the most remote outposts of the rail network. That’s a local example of good practice for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year. Even better would be a plan for the rest of the UK to catch up with Scotland.

Neighbouring schemes have mutual benefits – like the Calder Valley line naturally following on or even getting started in tandem with TransPennine Route Upgrade.

We do not disagree that some routes will have battery or hydrogen powered trains. Batteries and hydrogen are important ways of storing energy – but not the only ones. Storage is essential because the wind does not blow all the time even out at sea where the turbines spin. But hydrogen and battery powered trains may – in terms of track miles needing to be decarbonised – be no more than 15% of the total. The white paper says:

Battery and hydrogen-powered trains will be trialled for passenger routes where conventional electrification is an uneconomic solution, in order to support the government’s ambition to remove diesel-only trains from the network by 2040. Advances in technology, deployment and more appropriate regulation will be instrumental to achieving this in an affordable way, while also minimising disruption to passengers and freight customers.

“Trialled” – is someone admitting here that battery and hydrogen trains have still to be proven? And “diesel-only trains” removed from the network by 2040 – does that mean there will still be diesel bi-modes running, still wasting energy carrying around dead weight, still increasing maintenance costs, still burning carbon? Of course there are schemes under development to take the diesel engines out of electro-diesel bimodes and replace them with batteries – a form of electrification “without wires”, albeit limited. 

And “where conventional electrification is an uneconomic solution” – who decides on the economics? We know that a rolling programme will cut costs of wiring, maybe by a third, maybe even by half.

We also know that electric trains:

  • use less energy to run because overhead wires are the most efficient way of delivering traction energy. So they are cheaper to buy and cheaper to run.
  • are much less complicated than diesels, bi-modes or hydrogen-power meaning they are more reliable and cheaper to maintain.

And electrics deliver business benefits:

  • Lower mass, carrying  more passengers for the same amount of power;
  • Better acceleration reducing journey times even with more stops serving more stations on lines such as the Calder Valley;
  • Attractive to would-be passengers as clean, quiet, more spacious and more modern – and green. That’s the sparks effect mentioned in the white paper.

Now add in the economic benefit of having clean air, safety, roads freed of congestion by having more people using public transport, and saving future generations from climate catastrophe. Surely, then you have the economic case. With a stake in both tracks and trains Great British Railways should put the case effectively.  Grant Shapps must get the message to the Treasury. And readers, please tell your MPs!

Header Image: “Electrification work at Cardiff Central” flickr photo by Dai Lygad https://flickr.com/photos/126337928@N05/48892795197 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license