Trains fit for the future: why decarbonising rail will be worth it

5th July 2019

Given the global attention on the topics of climate change and air pollution, it’s hardly surprising that decarbonisation of the UK’s railways is high on the agenda. An inquiry into the ‘Trains of the Future’ was recently launched by Parliament’s Transport Select committee, and will examine the advantages of replacing diesel-powered technologies with more environmentally-friendly power sources, such as the electric trains intended for HS2. Just last year, the then Rail Minister, Jo Johnson, called for British rail industry to ‘take all diesel-only trains off the track by 2040’ and to propose ‘bold’ plans and strategies aimed at decarbonising the sector.

You could be forgiven for assuming that the rail industry needn’t be the focus here, given that overall, rail is a relatively green form of transport, causing only 4% of UK nitrogen oxide emissions and 1% of particulate emissions. Although that may be true on a national scale, local rail pollution greatly affects the areas surrounding stations and tracks, as well as the air on the trains themselves. As advances are made in decarbonising other modes of transport – such as the roll-out of hybrid and electric cars – it’s vital for the rail industry to keep up.

Decarbonisation of rail brings with it a number of benefits; social, economic and environmental.

Improved air quality and helping combat climate change

Perhaps quite obviously; reducing, or better still, eliminating, carbon emissions from rail would be wonderful news in the fight against climate change and poor air quality. Replacing traditional diesel engines with bi-mode technologies would reduce emissions, and electric or hydrogen battery powered trains give off no carbon dioxide at all. Advances in other areas can help too – for example, new lightweight materials mean that less power is required to propel the train along the track.

Faster, more reliable journeys

New train types are often much quicker. Take electric trains; able to travel at over 100mph, journey times are cut down dramatically. Additionally, as they have fewer moving parts, they are far less likely to break down.

Less noise

The traditional diesel engines certainly aren’t quiet – which impacts those on board, as well as those living and working along rail routes, and any nearby wildlife. Alternatives such as electric trains are incredibly quiet by comparison.

Improved passenger experience

Diesel engines aren’t just loud, they also cause a lot of vibration. Newer technologies are smoother and more comfortable, and as mentioned, result in higher quality air for passengers.

It could reduce costs

Electric trains are simpler, lighter, more efficient and more reliable, rendering them cheaper to purchase, operate and maintain. Whilst the infrastructure required is costly to install, the cost is dropping, and is now less than half that of past projects. Even the tracks require less maintenance, due to lighter trains.

Although the cost of trains using fuel cells and batteries is more than that of the traditional diesel type, the lifetime cost is predicted to be only 50%, due to savings in operation and upkeep.

These potential savings could be passed on to passengers, as well as benefiting rail companies directly.

Decarbonisation should be good news for the rail industry, as well as the people of the UK, and not to mention the environment. But to be successful, the switch not only needs to be made to the most effective, sustainable technologies, but care needs to be taken to ensure that this overhauled service is an attractive, comfortable, cost-effective option for passengers. As the more people who choose the network over more polluting transport types, then the closer we are to a carbon free future – and a rail industry that we can be truly proud of.

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