FCP and its partners CPCS Group recognise that perhaps the biggest challenge and opportunity for the rail industry is reconciling fast-approaching national and sectoral target dates for net zero carbon with the coronavirus-generated slump in ridership, which has dramatically shifted mode share away from public transport.

Addressing this challenge fully and successfully will see the rail industry playing a truly material part in building a green economy. Transport infrastructure will be a critical component of stimulus packages around the world and of the UK Government’s ‘build back green’ and ‘build back better’ agendas. If we fail to deliver appropriate new infrastructure, and in particular electrification, it will become impossible to hit carbon targets.

There is every opportunity for this to happen. The benefit of improved connectivity created by projects such as HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the Union Connectivity Review can transform poorly performing economic areas as does the re-opening of routes that is taking place. For freight, new port and terminal facilities are enabling much longer inter-modal trains to operate resulting in a cost reduction that enables large numbers of Heavy Goods Vehicles to be removed from the road network.

It has to be accepted that too much train haulage is provided by diesel and that a programme of electrification will be needed to bring about change. Much work is being done by industry suppliers to reduce the cost of providing the  which will improve the business case for making early progress.

But as well as providing electrified infrastructure a challenge exists as many passenger and freight operators do not use to the full the electric routes that are available because the required point-to-point journeys reach beyond the boundaries of the system.

That is changing as a new generation of bi-mode rolling stock is introduced that enable the use of the electrified section of the route with a switch to diesel power if this is required to complete the journey. An example is the through trains on the East Coast main line between London and Aberdeen which were worked throughout by diesel power until the bi-mode InterCity Express sets allowed electric traction to be used for the greater part of the journey.

In the passenger market the change to bi-mode working was facilitated by the need to replace life expired rolling stock that failed to meet a number of modern-day standards but in contrast there is very little older equipment being operated in the freight sector.

What might be described as big diesels are in use that have the ability to start heavy trains and maintain timings which have not been features that bi-mode traction has been able to match. There have been measures to reduce the level of emissions from freight locomotives and at present operations generate 76% less carbon than for a comparable road journey.

That is changing with a recent order by the  for a design type the rolling stock library in Britain has designated as Class 93. This will be the first time an electric locomotive will have sufficient diesel power to operate efficiently on long sections of non-electrified route compared with earlier capabilities confined to shorter distance operations to reach terminals.

Image: Designed by Stadler (Switzerland) the Class 93 locomotive has 3 power systems providing 5,400 hp when using 25kV overhead electrification, a 1,200 hp Caterpillar power unit conforming to Stage V emission standards, and Lithium batteries with rapid charge technology which lifts output to 1,750 hp. For passenger operations a variable height Dellner coupling is fitted. Maximum speed is 100 mph.

It is natural to focus on how existing rail operations can be made greener but in terms of the transport market a modal switch to from road to rail offers a great net benefit which has seen funding provided by Government agencies to re-open a number of routes. Often these are not new railways but lines formerly used only by freight services where the formation is available although needing an upgrade to passenger standards.

As diesel powered rail offers solutions to reduce urban congestion and pollution electrification is not always included which allows a business case for re-opening to be made. Among the latest projects to receive funding are the Northumberland route between Newcastle and Ashington and the restoration of passenger trains between Okehampton and Exeter.

Experience has shown that once new services are provided demand increases to the point where traffic volume makes it possible to develop a business case for electrification. It would be a mistake to make it obligatory to provide electrified infrastructure for any new rail service proposal as the additional costs could deny modal shift.

Not all routes will justify electrification and it is encouraging that there are a number of research projects in hand to develop the use of hydrogen/ battery technology as a source of power where lines have less traffic density. This is being backed by Government funding to provide the availability of hydrogen with a project to convert local train services in the Tees Valley to use the carbon-free fuel.

Rolling Stock owners are also well advanced in the design and testing of vehicles that use hydrogen/ battery power with conversions being made to rolling stock that has been displaced by new equipment but is not life expired. The Scottish Government has also initiated development work through appropriate agencies and institutions.

Image: Transport Scotland and Scottish Enterprise have funded the development of a prototype hydrogen powered train, in a project led by the University of St Andrews who are being supported by Brodie Engineering and Arcola Energy.

The UK Parliamentary Transport Committee published a new report ‘Trains fit for the future’ on 22nd March calling for the Government to publish a long-term strategy as a matter of priority to set out plans to meet net zero carbon emission for rail operations. This would include a delivery plan with targets and milestones to deploy a higher share of electric operations and the use of hydrogen and battery power.

This follows the publication by Network Rail in 2020 of its  which examined the 15,400 single track kilometres (STK) of unelectrified track in Britain and assesses which decarbonised power source—electrification, battery or hydrogen—would be the most efficient replacement for diesel. It recommended 11,700 STK for electrification (76% of the available track), 900 STK for hydrogen (6%), 400 STK for battery (3%) and 2,300 STK for further analysis (15%).

It is clear a rolling programme of investment must start now if there is to be any prospect of the meeting the zero-carbon objectives in the timeframe required.

©First Class Partnerships Ltd

Mike Jones

24th March 2021