Britain needs more electric railways. They are cleaner and greener. They provide lower operating costs but need heavy investment in masts and wires. Electric railways bring decarbonisation.

It’s this heavy investment that might explain why July 31’s publication date for Network Rail’s traction decarbonisation report came and went in silence. It’s all too easy to multiply NR’s conclusion that Britain should wire 13,000 single track kilometres by its £2.5m/stkm top-end pricetag. The resultant £32.5bn is big enough to make funders like the Department for Transport cough. Perhaps that’s why it took until September 10 before DfT’s subsidiary NR published its report (complete with a July 31 2020 date on its cover).

Electric railways help decarbonisation. Here an electric train leaves Rugby.
A Virgin West Coast Class 390 electric train leaves Rugby in May 2008. This route was first electrified in the 1960s, well before decarbonisation entered the dictionary. PHILIP HAIGH.

Never mind, within its pages NR makes clear that if Britain is serious about reducing carbon emissions from its rail network then electrification is the way forward. Today’s network contains 15,400stkm of un-electrified lines; the 13,040stkm that NR argues should be electrified represents 85% of that. Of the remaining tracks, hydrogen might power trains along 1,300stkm and batteries 800stkm. There’s 260stkm on which NR can’t make its mind up which technology to use.

Why bother with batteries?

Batteries form such a small overall proportion that it makes me wonder why NR bothers putting them forward. Take the Windermere line. It’s a 10-mile single-track stub from the electric West Coast Main Line (that’s 16stkm). Just wire it. Or the 12 miles (19km) of single-track line to Blackpool South. Just wire it. Or the seven miles from Ambergate Junction to Matlock which NR reckons should be a battery route from the Midland Main Line (a line ripe for wiring if only ministers would get on with it).

There’s a wider argument that asks whether it’s worth decarbonising the rail network at all. That’s because rail contributes less than 1% of the total UK annual greenhouse gas emissions. NR counters this, saying that rail is “in the unique position of currently being the only transport mode capable of moving both people and heavy goods using a zero-carbon solution”.

That’s powerful. Imagine a country with far fewer heavy lorries because their loads are now aboard electric freight trains. NR details the difference electric freight trains could make compared with today’s diesels. It suggests that an electric freight train could carry 87% greater tonnage and still keep to today’s diesel timetable. Or it might run more quickly; a 12% cut in times might result for trains under 2,000 tonnes. Those heavy stone trains from the Mendip quarries might cut the journey times by almost a quarter. The prospect of faster freight could make timetables easier to plan, lines might need fewer loops in which to hold freight while passenger trains pass.

Of course, much depends on how the railway’s electricity is created and a network designed for freight will need much more power than one solely for passenger trains. That’s already a constraint in places. Today, we have bi-mode trains forced to run on diesel because the overhead wires above them cannot provide enough current. Solving this problem would be a good step on the road to decarbonisation.

Decarbonise rail to help roads

It’s clear from Network Rail’s work that decarbonising rail provides the best route to decarbonising our roads. Tempting those freight loads from lorries to rail and people from cars to trains brings low-carbon transport. Predicting how this might happen is beyond NR’s report and is something for the Department for Transport. It might realistically consider how it taxes carbon fuels for road use while it provides a cleaner rail alternative. Perhaps the annual cancellations of the Treasury’s fuel duty escalator should be consigned to history? Use the money raised used to electrify the railway.

That over-simplified £32.5bn figure might scare funders. NR explains that the capital costs for its decarbonisation plan are £18bn-26bn. They would be spread over five control periods, that’s 25 years. To this should be added costs of £15-17bn for passenger rolling stock and £3-4bn for freight stock. Taken over this long-term, the programme becomes more affordable. Graphs in NR’s report show long payback times but perhaps we should think of decarbonisation as us buying clean air. Think of it as a product we want and should pay for.

NR maps out five different routes towards a carbon-free network. The chief difference between them being the date to reach decarbonisation. It reckons the optimum is to deliver higher decarbonisation targets over longer timeframes, hence 2061 is better overall than 2040. The longer timeframe demands an annual electrification rate of 447stkm compared with 2040’s 922. NR suggests that British Rail’s East Coast wiring programme in the late 1980s and early 1990s managed 300-450stkm a year. So did more recent CP5 schemes. This means that to even achieve the 2061 target, NR needs everything in its favour. This includes governments committed over many ministers, prime ministers and first ministers.

Decarbonisation needs commitment

Yet the history of electrification is on-off with more peaks and troughs than waves than wash over Dawlish. To achieve NR’s ambition will take greater and more competent government involvement than the railway has seen for many years. DfT seems unable to fund NR’s upgrade programme to match the improvements it’s agreed with train operators. So I’m very sceptical that we’ll see this plan translate into real and sustained action.

Railway economics suggest that electric trains better suit busy lines with frequent services and many passengers. But if you’re asking for decarbonisation, it’s better to remove first the most polluting diesel trains. This could be done by wiring their routes. Or by wiring routes with cleaner trains that you can then cascade to replace the older ones. Perhaps that should dent my enthusiasm for wiring the Midland Main Line? After all, the route’s main operator, East Midlands Railway, is about to receive new bi-mode trains to replace HSTs. They will work in conjunction EMR’s fleet of Class 222s that date from the 2000s.

Would it be better to concentrate initially on the Chiltern route from London Marylebone to Birmingham Snow Hill? This is the sort of detail that NR, train operators and governments will need to thrash out.

There’s also detailed work needed for the Basingstoke-Southampton route. It’s already electrified but with the 750V DC system. Yet it has freight trains hauling containers and CrossCountry services. Ideally, they’d be electric using 25kV AC overhead lines. However, NR notes: “Conversion to 25kV is likely to be costly, disruptive and time-consuming”.

Elsewhere on the generally DC Southern Region, there are pockets of diesel services from Uckfield, Reading-Gatwick Airport and Ashford-Hastings. Safety regulator ORR is not keen on more third-rail electrification which complicates matters. It’s the subject of research work by RSSB to compare it with battery or hydrogen options.

All of which shows there’s plenty more to examine to take Britain down the road of transport decarbonisation. But if we never start, we’ll never reach that goal.

This article first appeared in RAIL 914, published on September 23 2020.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.