flag for 2021 UN climate change conference

Decarbonizing transport is a challenging objective, but the UK’s government plans to eliminate carbon emissions across all its sectors by 2050. A timely move, as the country will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) this November.

For transport, the plan’s delivery depends on people using more active travel like cycling and be willing to use of public transport rather than their own cars, which will be re-enforced by an end to the sale of vehicles that are either petrol or diesel-powered by 2030.

At first sight, cars powered by electric batteries will represent a pollution-free journey. But this is simplistic because powering those batteries will not necessarily be a carbon-free solution. The use of renewable energy, such as wind, grew in 2020, accounting for 37% of the UK’s electricity generation output and coal was reduced to 2%; however, the UK remains dependent of gas (41%) and ageing nuclear power stations (17%).

Rail offers lower greenhouse gas emissions

Compared to cars, the UK’s rail network has a comparatively low carbon footprint. But overall, it generates significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, for which the industry regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, monitors and publishes statistical digests annually. The data used in this article is from 2018-2019, as it’s more representative than data available for more recent years due to the impact COVID-19 had on rail transportation.

The drop in rail ridership is a result of health authorities discouraging people to use public transportation after mass transit was identified as a greater risk to catch the COVID-19 compared to using private cars. Transport authorities are continuing to impose measures, such as wearing masks, that reduce the attractiveness of public transit and therefore journeys with reduced pollution.

Another challenge that has emerged is that some sectors have adopted remote work, reducing the need to move people back into the office. While this clearly cuts individual carbon emissions, having less people using rail transit has resulted in timetables being curtailed. The reduced service frequency brings a barrier for passengers who have become used to the idea that timetable checking is unnecessary and that there will be a minimal wait for a train.

This could be a perfect storm with a combination of reduced demand for travel, less convenient train services and the prospect of private cars using batteries that are cheaper to run.

100,000 shortfall in HGV drivers in the UK
A current shortage of HGV drivers in the UK is causing haulage rates to rise, making rail transits more competitive

In contrast to the passenger rail market, freight rail has been dealt much better cards. The critical element is that a significant shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers has emerged in the UK. This is a consequence of reduced use of staff from Eastern Europe due to visa requirements, an ageing workforce and an inability to approve new licences, as tests were suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Employers operating in higher-value markets such as large supermarkets and online retailers have responded by making significant pay increases to retain and attract staff. This has resulted in a sharp increase in haulage rates for ad hoc movement of goods such as the movement of containers to and from ports.

As a result, rail transits have become more competitive and are growing, but they’re mostly hauled by diesel locomotives due to the lack of network electrification. The relative carbon emissions compared to road haulage are lower, but would still be lower still if electric haulage was the norm.

Rail electrification installation cost has deterred network investment

While the UK’s government embarked on an electrification programme in 2015, costs escalated to the point where the business case couldn’t be justified. This means the expected infrastructure investment cost of £1 million per single track kilometre (stk) escalated to close to £3 million per stk.

Earlier in 2021, the government said that it was developing a Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) to achieve net zero emissions across every single mode of transport by 2050. The TDP aims to set out in detail what government, business and society will need to do to deliver against the significant reduction in GHG emissions needed across all modes of transport.

graphic of a transport decarbonisation plan
A visualisation of how the UK Government sees its Transport Decarbonisation Plan

For rail, the starting point of the TDP is the Network Rail (NR) traction decarbonisation network strategy, which sets out the requirement to electrify rail covering 13,000 single-track kilometres. It reflects all routes other than some rural lines where the use of hydrogen to enhance battery power is seen as the solution for traction purposes.

For now, there is no funding pipeline to implement the TDP as the UK’s government deals with a record public sector spending deficit due to support provided during the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent recovery measures.

A previous investment programme that included rail electrification was promoted by the private sector as part of a market-led initiative. In fact, FCP provided detailed input to the Department for Transport to electrify a route. However, this didn’t move forward as the NR believed the proposals were not free-standing and would require public sector input to integrate projects with the national network.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that implementing all decarbonisation objectives are beyond the capability of taxpayer funding and that a private-sector solution is inevitable.

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